Belfast, Sort of Gray

Greetings from Belfast. Of course arrival was Sunday night. One night of wandering. Two days of purposeful searching. The city is bustling. Much like the City of Derry, locals have capitalized on the peace from the Good Friday Agreement and tourism is booming. The Crown Bar is a must see for the nightly reveler with its stained glass windows and 19th Century accoutrements. This lies across the street from the Europa Hotel, allegedly the most bombed hotel on the planet. No personal pictures as I just haven’t snapped them yet. Tons of seagulls live in this port city. They congregate after lunch above the buildings and talk about leftovers. Their calls were never so ominous at the beaches along the East Coast. But the brick and mortar monoliths capture their calls and throw them down the streets against the other buildings. One bird’s call can be heard for blocks. Oh yes, I was a Seagull in a former life…

Yesterday I found my way, finally, after much cross Atlantic communication, with the generous people at the Institute for Conflict Research. John Bell sat me down and we discussed the various community organizations that would be of service to my study. He also shared with me his perspectives on the clashes, crises and rebuilding efforts around Belfast society. More to come from his contacts as I have set up meetings for tomorrow and into next week with community organizers and Belfast youth.

Katy Radford, whom I had been in close contact with via email, welcomed me warmly and offered more help. Most interesting is what’s happening next Monday. Along with monumental stepping stones toward reconciliation like the Queen meeting with Martin McGuinness, an ex-IRA man now the First Deputy Minister of Northern Ireland, communities are reshaping their identity. Murals, as Ms. Radford put it, are what Belfast does. One of the most infamous Unionist murals is in Sandy Row, just a few blocks from my hotel. Sadly I did not go see it Sunday night because it is being removed and repainted with a less intimidating image, but still one with pride in their Protestant roots. A portrait of William III, famous from this blog in such topics as the Battle of the Boyne, the Orangemen and the Seige of Derry, will grace this wall. Whereas I wasn’t able to capture the old gunman ominously welcoming you to Sandy Row, I will be able to document the passage of this week with footage from the mural making process. Next Monday I will attend the unveiling ceremony and a brief reception where I will be able to rub elbows with cucumber sandwich wielding muralists and community members. Enjoy the contrast.

This is a small example of communities redefining their identity through murals and public art. This tradition in Northern Ireland goes back to the early 1900s when Loyalist communities shared their imagery on the walls of their areas. William, the Prince of Orange, was their muse. Artists, often from a single family, would retouch the murals each marching season. This outward demonstration of identity was civic duty, recognized and legitimized by the state and the governing party. Republicans had less freedom to fly flags, paint murals or march. Thanks to Bill Rolston’s books on Irish murals for this info. More to come on local murals.

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