Oxford academic decries loss of terrorist murals

There have over the last number of years been serious attempts as part of the Re-Imaging Communities Project to remove the sectarian murals in Belfast and replace them with more positive images highlighting the areas’ cultural and history. The Titanic murals also on the Lower Newtownards Road would be an example: unfortunately since the assembly election two new murals depicting loyalist terrorists have been created.

Overall, however, according to the Belfast Telegraph there are fewer sectarian murals now than there have been for fifty years. Whilst most in the local communities and indeed throughout Northern Ireland society are very likely to be pleased by the removal of murals supporting terrorists some seem less happy (not just terrorists). Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University, 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 said. “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.”

According to the Arts Council’s Noirin McKinney “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… Some of them have come down, while some have been replaced with sculptures or landscaping. It’s really up to the community.”

Whilst there is undoubtedly a role for historians to record the murals, the reality is that the local communities (who suffered the most from the paramilitaries especially in more recent years) and Northern Ireland society in general seem keen to be rid of the overtly terrorist supporting murals. Whilst there might be an intellectual argument in his favour, Professor Kemp’s defence of the terrorist murals sounds little more sensible than Michael Stone’s defence after his attack on Stormont, when he claimed it was in actual fact “Performance Art.” On that occasion the judge who was less than convinced by his defence had previously been Chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

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  • CharlieMcCarthy29

    How to keep them? A part time paid project for MP to make a photographic record?

  • lamhdearg

    Some of the new ones are not murals as such, they are prints put on composite sheets and stuck on the wall, so they could be taken down, and only put up when a cruise ship docks.
    The titanic one on the lower newtownards road did not replace a “terrorist” one but replaced a mural that depicted (should that be,used to depict) verious atrocities that where carried out by irish nationalists.

  • nightrider

    They’re (shite) comic book ‘art’ as best and embarassing to 99% of people. If they now exist solely for the bus tours then that’s even more embarassing. The Oxford prof. can pay to have them painted next to his house if he thinks they have some value. But I get a feeling he -or his neighbours and council- would not countenance this.
    ‘Professor’ Kemp and the arts council flunkey are talking out of their hole.

  • Professor Martin Kemp says about murals.
    “People should see what they can do to preserve them”.

    Well who am I to argue with Professor Martin Kemp…..Professor of History of Art at Oxford University, who sounds like a pretty sophisticated bloke. Much more so than the likes of a philistine like myself.
    Martin Kemp does not live in Norn Iron.
    I do.
    And I am less of a mind that we preserve the murals….potent symbols of hatred than he is.

    But in fact Martin Kemp need not worry.
    Photographing these murals for posterity is the speciality of an artist called Eamonn McTeague, who spoke about his speciality at a Conference at Ulster Museum (Culture (sic) After Conflict) organised by the British-Irish Studies lot in March.
    Ironically one of the murals in the display (McTeague was informed by a speaker from the floor) had actually been the scene of a 1970s killing…of a young man who was er painting a mural.
    Ive never really taken a particuarly sophisticated view of murals….or graffiti as I call it.
    If Martin Kemp is a big fan, I dont see any good reason why some “artists” from Belfast…..cross-community of course…should not travel to Oxford…….and put up some nice murals on the gables at Balliol or Magdalen.
    Or perhaps at martin Kemps home….it may or may not add to the value of his property but at least the neighbours will have something nice to look at it.

    Alternatively the Elgin Marbles can be returned to Greece and some of the finest Republican and Loyalist murals can replace them.
    Seems fair….They are after all …….”Art”.
    Belfasts loss can be Londons gain.
    Obviously Belfast will suffer as a consequence.
    But thats Art….we must suffer for it.

  • nightrider

    Oxford has a history here;


    I don’t think it’s art either but preferable to the Belfast crap.

  • I have some sympathies with Prof. Kemp, because I think he (rightly) understand the historical value of these murals, but if he is suggesting that they should continue to adorn the gabkle walls of Belfast as symbols of hate and a reminder of the troubles then unfortunately he is clearly misguided.

    I want the people of Northern Ireland to remember the past, learn from the past, and move on from the past, not to live in the past. The murals seem simply to be serving to line the pockets of the various tour companies that are exploiting a history of bloodshed and misery.

  • Tweedybird

    Johnny your comments are spot on. If we had a community that totally wants to move on prof kemps comments would be fair enough but there is to many people still hang on to the past and use the murals as reference points for their justifcation on keeping these murders and atrocities that still blight our country.

  • Charlie i have already played a minor role in the replacement of some of the murals up the lower Shankill.
    I had a conversation only last week with Mark Ervine (son of David) about the process of mural painting. Times are a changing but Mark was telling me of how it would perhaps take two weeks to paint a mural and throughout the process the local community would bring out out their old unwanted paint to be used for the murals. Conversations and discussions would be had and a sense of involvement (and ownership) would be engendered.
    The newer murals and how they are being produced (under the auspices of Re-Imaging) are a different way of doing it and as Mark rightly pointed out to me, painting large scale murals is not something that everyone can do. The scale of the murals, working outdoors and with communities is not everyones cup of tea. The process of engagement and the ability to deal with communities and people who perhaps are reticent to change is not an easy thing. There is actually quite a high burn out rate amongst artists working with communities as the expectations and worked required is not something that is easily quantified and can lead to tensions throughout the process.
    I think the professor is right in that there is a historic value to the murals and these have been extensively documented by Bill Rolston

  • I think the fairest way would be to allow local communities to vote on it.

    Personally I’d rather they were kept up if the local communities supported it. I’m certainly not a fan of the new peaceful ones.

  • Charminator

    Agree with Daniel – whatever about my own personal preferences, I suspect if the local communities feel this is an important part of their local cultural heritage, then I can understand why they should be retained.
    That said, some are especially haunting and sinister, like the UVF angel of death style one I recall seeing. I’m not sure what sort of statement such a local community is seeking to project of itself with such a mural, but it certainly isn’t one of “open for business to all”.
    In any event, in these budget deficit times, hardly a pressing priority either way.

  • Paul_David_Robinson

    Hello, I hope you don’t mind if I take the chance to request advise…

    Being a fan of John Stewart Bell, who was from Tates Avenue, I wonder if a mural of the man would be viable. It would certainly be nice to show visiting academics on their tours, it would give South Belfast something to rival the C S Lewis stuff, etc., and would help raise the profile of possibly the greatest N.Irish scientist. Plus entanglement is pretty cool!

    Various members of my party, the PUP, like the idea, as do many folk at QUB. Locals, too, though typically this is after a few pints! If anyone has any advice about how to proceed with such a project, or has any opinion about the idea — positive or negative — I’d appreciate hearing from you! I don’t want to throw the thread off, so please reply via my email address in my profile description. Cheers!

  • slmccni

    I always thought that the murals should be preserved. But not in their currrent situation. I like the accidental genius of the park in moscow where the authorities dumped all of the soviet statues/memorabilia after 1991. It is now a major attraction, you learn about the history but because they disposed of in a park you know its the past you’re seeing – not the present.

    Whether by copying or simply erecting display versions of the murals in a park for example we could preserve our past but not give the youths on the falls and shankill a feeling as though they missed out on a heroic glamourous war. I think it was a community rep from Ballysillan in N Belfast who said the murals leave the kids feeling a conflict defecit.

  • pippakin

    Professor Kemp needs to spend six months living next door to one, or preferably all of them from, both sides. Art can be all things even hatred but who wants to live with hatred all the time?

    Failing that I think dumping them on waste ground is a good idea. The council could charge people who could then throw rotten fruit at them with the money going to the victims.

  • Mickles

    “People should see what they can do to preserve them.”

    They have these things called ‘cameras’ now for preserving images.

    That tit-head professor has no clue about the intimidation those murals cause the average Joe. Sitting in his university office full of leather bound books, supping tea before heading back to his gated community maisonette. Prick.

  • TwilightoftheProds

    Least number of ‘sectarian’ muriels for the last 50 years – doesn’t ring true – there were almost no murals between 1960 and 1980 in Republican areas – and even the King Billy ones in unionist areas were falling into abeyance in that period. Think they may have misquoted the good prof rolston.

    What’s counted as a sectarian or terrorist mural these days?

    Portrait of Hunger striker, or dead loyalist even if no guns or masks?

    Easter rising? Somme? Murals alledging collusion or supporting Royal Irish Regiment?All highly political and partisan but terrorist or sectarian- there’s the rub.

    So what do we want up instead, if anything? God preserve us from pictures of kids holding balloons and talking about diversity…thats sub sesame street stuff. many of the local history or cultural ones are a big disappointment.

    Thing is these murals have always been about politics and identity first, and therefore have a certain constituency….even if its nowhere near a majority of the local community. A lot of the local history/cultural ones run the risk of not appealing to anyone. In which case they wont replace harder edged ones, they’ll just add to the overall number of painted gables.

  • TwilightoftheProds

    …and does anybody else remember an idea of Henry McDonald’s years ago— to paint murals showing the realistic, unromantic side to these things – I dunno- might be-funerals, grief, doorstep assassination, shop bombings, house raids, kneecappings etc

    Morbid or useful?

  • slmccni

    His idea of displaying the cold truth of the conflict is a good idea but i know many of the “get on with it/forget about it” lobby wouldn’t want reminding of the conflict that inconvenienced their suburban lives. I on the other hand, if wee are talking about murals as a legacy of the troubles, would much rather see a non-sectarian national conflict memorial right at the heart of Belfast One where all names regardless of side, allegience or cause of death are listed next to onee another and it should bee right at the centre of the city so no one can walk along our bustling streets into victoria square or castlecourt and enjoy the peace and stability without remembering those that were killed in getting us here. From the worst of perpatrators to the most innocent of victims, a memorial is for the country to remember our darkest times not judge who was right or wrong.

  • TwlightoftheProds 8 August 2011 at 2:24 pm
    “and does anybody else remember an idea of Henry McDonald’s years ago— to paint murals showing the realistic, unromantic side to these things – I dunno- might be-funerals, grief, doorstep assassination, shop bombings, house raids, kneecappings etc
    Morbid or useful?”

    Well there is a new one being painted at the moment on the Ballymac road which looks to be depicting a UDA(?) funeral

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  • TwilightoftheProds

    Thats interesting MP- I wonder if they are trying to present a more considered image to contrast themselves with the local UVF’s return to more militant murals.