Fig.1. Prof. Bill Rolston at the Europa Hotel, Belfast
My second set of walks were in Belfast and this walk, with Bill Rolston, is one of four I will be posting over the next few weeks.
I was interested in walking in Belfast for many reasons. My grandparents were migrants from Ireland to the North East of England. I grew up aware of the conflict and the so-called ‘troubles.’ Belfast was both of personal and social-cultural interest given my links with Queens University through the ESA (European Sociological Association) Research Network on Biographical Sociology, my admiration for Bill Rolston’s work on the murals of Belfast and my limited knowledge of the sectarianism deeply embedded in the history and visual culture of Northern Ireland.
On Thursday 7th January 2016 I met Professor Bill Rolston in the Europa Hotel in Belfast city centre. Bill told me that the Europa was “proverbially the most bombed hotel west of Beirut at one point in time.” There were around twenty-nine separate bomb attacks at the hotel.
I invited the sociologist and expert on the political murals in Belfast [and elsewhere in the world] to walk with me around a route of his choice, connected to the theme of Borders, Risk and Belonging.
I hoped that walking with Bill would help me to better connect with the city of Belfast through his biography, expertise on the murals and that I might also gain some insight into the sectarian politics and landscape of Belfast.
Walking with Bill invoked a deeper, embodied understanding of the history, politics and ideologies of the ‘Peace Lines’ in Belfast as well as the visual, structural, spatial and phenomenological aspects that are claimed in the streets and murals. Walking with Bill also gave me a sense of what it means to live in a city marked by lines, walls and gates – the visible and the invisible borders. Through our walk, I connected with the biography of Belfast and the area around the Falls Road and the Shankill Road.
Over a coffee, in the Europa café, Bill described the walk:
What I’m proposing is that we walk up the Shankill across the Peace Line and down the Falls and in a sense when you’re in Belfast you can’t get more obvious borders than the Peace Lines. Our walk, as documented below, was slightly different to this in that we started on the Falls Road and returned via the Shankill Road.
There are differing numbers for how many Peace Lines there actually are in Belfast.
There are supposedly about forty of them now in Belfast. There’s something totally counterintuitive about them in that if you go back to the Good Friday Agreement 1998 they reckon there were about twenty-five to twenty-eight at that point in time, so there are more, many more than there were and also the one that we’ll come closest to is much higher than it was twenty years ago. So if peace has broken out in the North in some ways it hasn’t broken out in some of these what we call ‘interface areas’ where working-class communities abut on to each other; and so that’s the route up through the Loyalist area, across and down through the Nationalist area.
For readers who may want to re-trace Bill’s walk, the instructions are as follows.
Here is the exact itinerary:
1. Start at the Europa Hotel, turn left out to the hotel, cross Grosvenor Road and head north along College Avenue, the A1.
2. Take a Left onto Castle Street and then Divis Street, A501 and up to the international wall.
3. Turn Right onto Northumberland Street and through the gates dividing Falls and Shankill.
4. Turn Left onto North Howard Court and left again onto North Howard Street. This will bring you to the Peace Wall at Cupar Way. Continue on North Howard Street, through another set of gates and out onto the Falls Road where you turn right.
5. Walk Up the Falls Road, past the Bobby Sands mural at Sevastopol Street, and then right onto Clonard Street. You will pass the Clonard Monastery. Turn right into Bombay Street.
6. Back out of Bombay Street, take a right onto Clonard Gardens, left at Cupar Street and onto the Springfield Road.
7. Turn right on Lanark Way, walk through the gates, and keep straight on until you come to the Shankill Road.
8. Turn Right on Shankill Road and follow it all the way down to Peter’s Hill and then we turn right onto the B126. This road will lead you straight back to the Europa Hotel.
Borders, risk and belonging
I asked Bill what this walk meant to him in relation to the theme of borders, risk and belonging.
Well, people here know this intuitively but you probably catch it coming here, in that it’s not a very big city you know and it’s divided into smaller segments, first by class and second by ethnicity and the result is, that you know, people tend to be surprised, like for example towards the centre of the town these two roads that we’re going to be walking, the Shankill Road and the Falls Road are a spit away from each other and I mean, I’m almost not being metaphorical you know [laughs] I’m almost being literal there, you could throw a petrol bomb from one area to another, which is one reason why the Peace Walls/ separation walls exist.
Belonging is a very tight concept in Belfast reduced to very small, compact areas. I mean one thing I often point out when I’m bringing people around on tours is that if we drive up the lower part of the Falls Road I guarantee you that if you’ve been looking at footage or looking at newspaper photographs over the last forty years that much of the footage and many of the photographs would be, you’ll be where they were taken, you know it’s that compact. So belonging becomes very important, very fundamental to people’s identity but also very crucial to one’s sense of security, you do not leave the area.
Put it this way, we’ll be walking a route that we would not have done twenty-five/thirty years ago, thirty years ago certainly we wouldn’t have done it at night or well, we’d have done it at night, but may not have lived to tell the tale.
Bill first started to photograph the murals in 1981. The first murals were Unionist and painted in 1908 but his interest was sparked by the murals that followed the hunger strikes.
There was a sudden popular explosion of support for the hunger strikers which manifested itself in major, major street demonstrations and also for the first time, the beginning of murals painted on the Nationalist side. So that was new, that was something that was unmissable. I started photographing and then suddenly realised wait a minute we’ve had murals on the other side all along so I started photographing them too. They still paint, I still photograph.
Belfast has the “the longest extant mural tradition in the world” and although resistance “is probably the biggest conceptual link between lots of murals and lots of places in the world” it is unusual to see “popular pro-state murals anywhere in the world” yet in Belfast “you see pro-state murals painted on behalf of the state” from 1908.
Memory and Forgetting: Working through the Past
A major theme on our walk was the concept of history in the present and the meanings linked to certain spaces and places as well as the imaginings attached to the murals. Speaking of Sara McDowell ‘s work on public space and public representation in Belfast, “one of the things that she says is that what’s really, really interesting is the extent to which you can go round the city centre and never realise there’s been a war here”.
That’s been quite deliberate in terms of the representation of public space by the authorities… There’s a whole, huge effort has gone into forgetting about the past, not mentioning the war…
In contrast, a group called Dead Centre Tours developed a walking tour that speaks of the hidden history in public spaces, pointing out where bombs were “and there have been some horrific bombs in the centre of Belfast.”
Bill pointed out the difference in the lack of public representation or memory of the conflict and the deaths in the centre of Belfast with the representations and memorials “in working-class areas, whether civilians or combatants and they’re represented in memorials, in murals basically and also in memorial gardens that we’ll pass by.”
So there’s that silence in the centre contrasted with this obvious memory going on very close to the centre. So in the centre, creating a neutral shared space has been a big thing of both business and government.
I asked Bill about the role of the University in this process – given the fact that students, especially at the height of the conflict, would be both Unionist and Republican. I had walked with Bob Miller, a biographical sociologist, at Queens University the previous day and the University was on my mind.
They managed it by ignoring it and I remember sitting in Botanic Avenue at one point in the 1980s, with an American journalist, being interviewed and he said ‘but look, look around you we’re sitting in a coffee shop, everything is wonderful here’. I said ‘do you know how much this costs to allow you and me to do this’.
Our conflict was almost like a Russian Dolls thing where you had an agreement between governments that basically lets as far as possible, confine the problem to Ireland, to the island of Ireland, secondly as far as possible to the northern part of that island and thirdly as far as possible to pockets in the northern part, basically West Belfast, South Armagh, Bogside et cetera and lets you know put a lot of effort, whether it was ideological effort, or quite literally military effort, into that containment. So I said to the journalist basically that the cost for us being able to sit here and have a really nice coffee in the middle of a conflict is that four miles away a lot of people are unable to do that easily, there are no coffee shops there. If there were coffee shops some people would be very nervous sitting near a window in those coffee shops, in case somebody went by, or there was a bomb left nearby or whatever you know, we benefit because we are the other side of a coin.
So Bill reinforced that for some organisations, not mentioning the war was a way of dealing with the conflict. Indeed, not only the University but for example, “ it took the Arts Council something like twenty years after the ceasefires to get round to talking about having some sort of archive or arts response to the conflict”. The murals, similar to the murals Bill studies across the globe, are a way of ensuring the memory of the past. Bill pointed out that in Latin America, Argentina, Chile, Colombia “the word that’s used most often by artists, by academics and all, is the word memoria, memory”.
They are really into not forgetting, really, really, really and they regard forgetting as the biggest curse, that if you want to ensure that something doesn’t happen again the bottom line is you do not forget.
I mention Theodor Adorno’s work on working through the past and Bill made reference to Adorno’s comment that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz”. In his own teaching on memory and conflict, Bill talks about
what you might call unspeakability… I mean basically words grow out of society and culture but if society and culture throw up something that it just doesn’t have the words for, like a holocaust, like an industrial level extermination, how do you begin to talk about it. So that’s what Adorno was getting at, he wasn’t rejecting the necessity of poetry, he was rejecting the possibility of finding the words to describe something that is beyond anything we’ve been accustomed to.
In this sense, the murals are a way of both remembering and talking about the conflict and also about the past.
History, politics and lines
Sectarianism it’s a thread that runs through this whole society. Sometimes people in polite company don’t like to talk about it, but it’s at the very least an elephant in the room all the time, I mean it is at the core of the makeup of this society.
Walking from the hotel and up the Falls road gave me a real, material and visual sense of this comment as Bill describes the terrain.
We’re just turning west up through what is the Falls Road area of Belfast. The road changes its name, Castle Street, Divis Street, Falls Road, Andersonstown Road but basically you’ve got this long road that runs up to and then swings round by the hills in the west and it’s the biggest concentration of Nationalists in Northern Ireland, a hundred and twenty thousand probably.
Interestingly just to our left here is the area that was originally called the Pound Loney and the Pound was nothing to do with money it was to do with where they put animals that were impounded in the early days of Belfast and Loney is just a local word for a laneway or a small street.
Now this was the Catholic area of Belfast and there’s an explicit reason for it that as people flocked into Belfast when it began to take off industrially; the ones who flocked from the west were Catholics and so the first place they hit was the western side of Belfast. In its original days Belfast actually forbad Catholics from living within the confines of the town.
By the time these Catholics were arriving that was not the case but socially it was still the fact, it was not a law, it was a practice. So they settled in this boggy area here to the west and two hundred years later this is where they still are and each generation multiplied that living space right out to the hills.
So we were walking in the main Catholic part of Belfast.
Just over here was, it’s not here now because of the motorways and other roads they’ve put in, but as I was growing up Townsend Street was here and the name gives it away, this was the end of the town and this was the little Catholic area, the Bogside area, it wasn’t called that, in Derry it was called the Bogside, here it was the Pound Loney.
Fig. 4. Divis Flats on the Lower Falls Road
This is the last bit of the flats that remain. This is the one high-rise but you know they were all low-rise flats stretching out for acres around here. I mean it was planned to be much bigger than what it ended up but it was huge when it existed, it’s all been pulled down now, but it’s funny the flats were built in a modular way so that on one floor you might go into a flat, the entrance hall and there’d be rooms there and then there’d be an upstairs. Another level you might go to you’d enter the hallway there’d be rooms there and the bedrooms would be downstairs because they could just put the modules together in different ways.
I had a friend who lived there and her bedrooms were downstairs, so basically you were up four floors but if you went in and down you were actually close to the ground again, so her flat was an escape route. She just got used to the front door bursting open, didn’t stress or anything and people would say “hi” and then run through and down the stairs, out the window, jump and then the British Army after them.
So this was quite an area, the British Army had a post there and it was only cleared a few years ago as a lookout point, but of course they couldn’t see everything which meant that then there were other vantage points from within that they were shot at, there were people shot down the road, but memory, as I said to you earlier, memory is everywhere you see.
In August 1969, the fifteenth of August 1969 Loyalist and civilians began burning out houses and factories. There were mills all along this road and on the night of the fifteenth the police drove up here with Shorelands, they were called Shoreland armoured personnel carriers that had machine guns mounted on them and they shot through the walls of the flats there and killed nine-year-old Patrick Rooney in his bed. You know I remember speaking to his father once who said that he was so insulted by somebody once saying ‘oh poor Patrick Rooney was in the wrong place at the wrong time’ and his father said ‘no, no he was in exactly the right place, he was in his bed in his home, that’s where he should have been’ and yet he was still killed.
His father was a lovely man, he’s dead now too, a lovely, lovely man. So there are a million stories. It’s a research method that might be frustrating in many ways but you could knock on any door here and indeed across in the Shankill area when we go across there and just say tell me your stories and you’d be there an hour later you know.
There was a street here called Dover Street and it actually continues beyond the wall and it runs right away over to North Belfast to the Antrim Road and when I was at Grammar School, St Malachy’s is on the Antrim Road, so those of us from West Belfast we would get the bus down, we’d get off the bus here and we’d walk for twenty minutes or so, walk from the Nationalist area through the Unionist area to our grammar school.
This was in the 1960s, there wasn’t any trouble but about 1963 I think it was, there was an edict issued by the school that said we couldn’t do that anymore, we were to take the bus right to the terminal in the centre and walk a different route to the school and I suppose in a way that was my first awareness of sectarianism, in that the reason given was that some boys had been beaten up walking through there on their way to school, because you’re in a uniform that immediately identifies where you are from and so we weren’t allowed to go that way anymore.
Fig.5. Looking down towards the Shankill Road and Peace Line
I think there’s a real living sense of space and memory that goes along with identity in Belfast overall and particularly in working class inner-city parts of Belfast. So I mean maybe not the youngest teenagers passing by, but an awful lot of people would know what I was talking about when I say, the Pound Loney, or whatever you know, it’s in there in their psyche.
Now just to put it in context, this is the working class Nationalist area, working class Unionist area, the Shankill is just over here in fact when we come to this next street here look down past the houses and you’ll see a wall, that’s the dividing line. Do you see that church there? That’s in the Protestant Shankill area. And we’re in the Catholic Falls area, that’s how close it is, what is that, a hundred and fifty yards?
We had reached the International Wall and Bill stopped for a moment to share a story.
Fig.6. International Wall
Fig.7. International Wall Detail
This is called the International Wall and I want to pick up this one because Danny, Joe, Jimmy, JD and Paddy, they’re five young IRA men, they’re not dressed in uniforms right but they all died at various points in the 1970s in different incidents. They weren’t all in one incident but to me, it’s very telling but also very deliberate on the part of the muralists and the people. They’re five young guys from around here, so they’re painted as five young guys in the 1970s from around here they’re not painted in uniforms, they don’t have guns, none of them have any outward symbols that these were combatants.
Fig.8. Walking through the first Peace Line
Walking past the International Wall we arrive at the first ‘Peace Line’ gate.
We’re going towards through this euphemistically named Peace Line into the Shankill. This one is interesting, this has a double set of gates on it and they’re closed every night still and if there’s any trouble pending between the areas they remain closed all day. You see the tour buses going there, you see traffic going by, but one thing that you will not see apart from us, is people walking.
And one of the reasons for that is the way space has been constructed over the centuries here, is that if I live on this side of the Peace Line and in fact before there was a Peace Line it was also like this, almost everything that I would need to do I can do here and the same for them over there. So much so that for example, if there is a bus stop just the other side of the gate, a hundred yards away and the other bus stop on this side is five hundred yards away, I will not go to the one hundred yards away bus stop, there is no way. Because I’m going to be seen as the outsider going in there.
I said to you earlier that one of the things that I find about Latin America is this insistence on not letting memory die and this is the same thing that happens in these areas where we’re walking, in contrast to the centre of the town where the purpose seems to be, the project seems to be, to not let memory interfere with capital and other progress.
We were standing in what Bill called ‘no man’s land’, the space between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road. And “with one step suddenly we’re in a parallel universe, we’re now in Shankill.”
Now what I’m doing now I would not have done at the height of the troubles. I am walking in a Loyalist area and in fact, I have friends who to this day would not do what we’re doing now, walking in a Loyalist area. They’d drive there, they’d drive through like these cars are doing but they wouldn’t do this.
Bill talked about earlier times and how in his own childhood,
The Shankill Road was always a great shopping road we’ll see that when we walk down it later, there’s still lots of little shops and it always was that way from when I was growing up. My mother used to do a lot of sewing and knitting, clothes making and curtain making and some of the best shops to get material were in the Shankill Road so she would go there very frequently and she wasn’t alone from West Belfast, from Catholic West Belfast. So I don’t want to put forward this romantic notion that says that things were really wonderful before the troubles and then it all went wrong because that’s not right. I told you the story about being a schoolboy, but at the same time, there is no denying that my mother was doing things when I was growing up that women of a later generation didn’t do so easily.
Fig.9. The Shankill Road
For a long time each of these areas became in a sense self-contained, no-go areas for anybody from outside, it wasn’t completely hermetically sealed in… I don’t know if there are statistics for what we called mixed marriages here but certainly mixed marriages did exist and they were probably more common than most people realised, even through all the troubles, but you did have a problem if you got into a mixed marriage. Severe questions about where you’re going to live, how are you going to raise you kids, what schools are the kids going to go to, because you know the schools here are segregated completely?
Fig.10. Looking towards Clonard Monastery. ‘In 20 mins you can be in the hills’
This is Clonard Monastery and so it’s just on the other side of the Peace Line and in fact when the people came across in 1969 one of the parts they were heading for was the monastery.
Fig.11. The Second Peace Line
The second Peace Line cast an enormous shadow across the road.
It’s a pretty bleak place to walk up, just standing here we’re about eight hundred metres, that wall, as you can see has concreted bottom then metal and then the wire mesh. The wire mesh is post-ceasefire that’s been recent and it’s the demand of local people. The government wants these walls to go but local people say no.
If we stand on the other side of the wall and throw a petrol bomb we’re going to hit a road but if you stand on this side of the wall and throw a petrol bomb, look, you’re going to hit a house. So we’ll leave the Protestant area now and walk back through the Catholic area and then back into the Shankill again afterwards.
Fig. 12. The Second Peace Line and gates
Fig.13. Peace Line gates
I comment that I experience the walls and gates as truly shocking. I have walked and been driven up the Falls Road and down the Shankill looking at the murals, but this is a new experience and to think that at 7 pm every evening these gates ate closed every single day of the year.
Yes, the walls shocked a lot of people too, some of the other ones are less domineering but this one, really you can’t miss that wall there. This is again a double set of gates but as far as I know, oh no maybe no these ones are closed too, I think so you’ve got this zone.
The borders, or space between the gates are a phenomenon, a zone of transition. As Bill states a ‘no-mans land’. We walk through the gates and we are back on the Falls Road again. I ask Bill about the generations of people, of families living either side of the ‘Peace Lines.’ Bill said that although you can see the negative side of the lines, there is also a positive side in the biographies of community, identity and belonging experienced by people living in the one area.
There’s part of me envies these people that can say ‘oh I could name you everybody that lived in these houses back in’ you know [laughs].
Fig 14. Bobby Sands Peace Mural
Bill talks further about identity,
Two anthropologists in North Clare..describe people’s identity in that when you ask people who they are, you get answers in terms of concentric circles. So first and foremost they’re from that parish, secondly they’re from North Clare, thirdly they’re from Clare, fourthly they’re from Connacht which is a province in the West of Ireland and fifthly, fifth they’re Irish so the Irish thing is actually down the list of things that they are.
Bill points out the chimneys and old mills, relics of industrial Belfast and the Linen trade and that In the early twentieth century a quarter of the linen in the whole world was produced in Belfast.
The Linen Hall Library in the city centre is not only a beautiful building with a great café but an amazing resource and archive of Belfast history.
We continue walking onto Clonard Street towards the Monastery and Bill points out an Irish language School and the bilingual street signs. For many years the street signs were ‘unofficial’ and ‘illegal’.
Fig.15. Bombay Street.
We passed the Kashmir Bar on the corner of a street, turn into Bombay Street and stop to look at the mural and memorial garden.
Fig.16. Bombay Street Massacre and Memorial Garden
On the night of the 15th August 1969, the houses on Bombay street were burnt out. The images on the side wall of a house graphically describe the event.
The street was burned out but almost immediately local residents, with the support of sympathetic architects and other professionals, began to rebuild it. So, the street literally rose from the ashes. In the memorial garden you will see a Phoenix, the mythical bird which rose from its ashes. This has been a republican symbol for a century and half. So, the aspirational slogan of the republicans, that a new struggle will emerge from an old defeat, is mirrored in the practical work of local people in pulling their community back together again after destruction.
A local tour was there at the same time as us and a small crowd gathered around the memorial, standing in silence, listening to the guide recount the events that took place.
Fig.17. Bombay Street Memorial to the dead
Leaving Bombay Street we walked towards Northumberland Street where we walked through the third Peace Line and set of gates, walking from “the Nationalist area Springfield Road back over towards the Shankill Road area.”
Fig.18. Cave Hill
That’s Cave Hill ahead of us over there, the mountain. Now you can’t see it from this angle but from about the centre of the town, Royal Avenue or whatever if you look at it and it looks like a face of, a head of a person lying down looking up and the edge is a nose so they call it Napoleon’s Nose. And it relates to the way the people of Belfast identified with the French Revolution and all the aftermath and waiting for Napoleon to come and free them. The United Irishmen, you’ve heard of them? They were formed on Napoleon’s Nose in 1792.
We continued walking towards the Shankill road and Bill told me of Colm Tóibin the author of the Oscar-winning film Brooklyn who walked the border between North and South Ireland from Derry to Newry the year after the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1986 when tension was high.
OK we’re coming to the Shankill Road area now so this is the main Unionist area in West/North Belfast. Like the Falls Road it changes names along the way so we’re in Woodvale Road at the moment but just at the lights round the corner here it turns to the Shankill Road, it’s just a continuation and one of the things that I think is really interesting, if you look at this old church there the Irish for old church is Shankill.
Walking, Stumble Stones and Immediacy
Bill asked me if I had heard of the stumble stones (stolpersteins) in Berlin and said that the things he was showing me were a bit like these.
Have you never heard of them? Next time look out, you’ll be walking along the centre of Berlin and do you know the cobbles, there’ll be one of them where the cobble has been removed and there’s a little brass plaque and it’ll say Heinz Schultz was taken from this house in 1941 and died in Auschwitz September 1941 you know and they call them stumble stones because they’re not mapped, they’re not signposted and you literally stumble across them.
He said there were countless stumble stones in Belfast, that we had come across a number today already and that these related to my methodology because “there are things that you don’t know exist if you never walk”.
Taking the metaphor of the stumble stones further, Bill remarked on the signs and symbols around us on the Shankill Road, that are part of a much bigger visual culture and one I recognised as familiar and British, especially given the use of the colours and symbols of the British Flag. And of course for those who self-identify as Irish, the signs and symbols around us would not be familiar or comforting in the way they felt to me as a British citizen, albeit with Irish roots, but rather ‘I’m not that, where are my symbols, who am I’. And as Bill points out, on the other side of the Peace Line the symbols are different colours, bilingual signs with symbols of Irish language, Irish dance, Irish poetry.
We walked down the road towards the sound of pipes, a funeral was taking place and Bill shared some history regarding the Unionist politics and murals on this side of the Peace Line and the concept of re-referencing.
We are on the Shankill Road and there’s an interesting demarcation here which comes from a feud between the Loyalist Paramilitaries in the Year 2000 that if you go down, see the furthest red light see down there if you go down there it’s UDA, Ulster Defence Association and this side is Ulster Volunteer Force.
Since the mid 1980s Loyalist murals have been overwhelmingly on one theme, masked men with guns. The pressure is on the loyalist groups to change their image, something that they have not found very easy to do. In some ways it has been easier for the UVF than for the UDA.
In opposition to Home Rule at the start of the twentieth century there was an illegal army formed in the north to fight Home Rule, they called themselves the UVF right. When the First World War started, they joined the British Army en masse, 36th Ulster Division were slaughtered at the Somme, right. Now the UVF ceased to exist in 1921/22 but Gusty Spence who lived over here decided to reform this organisation or to form an organisation in 1965 called the UVF. Now there’s a break but in their heads they’re directly linked in an unbroken line. So they’ve very much reimaged themselves in terms of references to the First World War and that whole period of the anti-Home Rule crisis and things.You’ll start to see it.
What is very clear in the murals on the Shankill Road are the military references.
Fig.19. Shankill Road Mural
Fig.20. Shankill Road, Belfast
Fig.21. Shankill Road, Belfast.
We looked at a mural that had recently been repainted. The mural above shows the men without masks and Bill explained, previously the men had all been masked. ‘This is five UVF men; it’s quite different from the other five men we saw on the other side isn’t it, in that they are with guns.’
A little further down the Shankill Road, we stopped outside a former fish shop.
I don’t know if you remember the horrific bomb in 1993 the Shankill bomb, the Fish Shop bomb, a man called Frizzell sold fresh fish. One Saturday morning two young IRA men from a mile away came in with a bomb to leave in the shop. The logic was that that the room upstairs was used on Saturday mornings by the UDA and they had meetings. If that was true, they weren’t actually meeting that morning. The bomb exploded in the hands of one of the IRA men killing him and eight other people including the shop owner and his daughter.
Given the sectarian divide, Bill talked about how everything people needed was in their own area and that has become more pronounced since the troubles.
I mean we’ve got a sort of rigid sort of egalitarianism here which means that if they build a sports centre there on that side of the Peace Line then they have to build one on this side of the Peace Line, otherwise people complain.
Fig.23. Visual Culture, Shankill Rd, Belfast.
Fig.24. Cultural and Political Identities.
The visual references were not only of the military but also the British flag and the Queen of England. We walked past a shop festooned with visual images and symbols of Great Britain.
Further along the road we stopped at a memorial to the victims of a bombing attack.
The Bayardo Bar attack took place on 13 August 1975. The bar was used by the UVF. As this image documents, four Protestant civilians and one UVF member were killed.
Further along the road, Bill was pointing out a memorial to members of the 36th Ulster Division who won the Victoria Cross during world war one when he spotted another walking tour led by his friend a Loyalist ex-prisoner. While we waited for his friend to finish his tour at this very point on the Shankill road Bill talked to me about the mural facing us.
Fig.27. Digital Reproduction of a Mural.
Firstly it’s not a mural it’s a digital reproduction but secondly it’s faded but it’s a copy of a mural that used to exist, an actual painting on a wall and I find it very poignant because it basically is listing a number of those atrocities that we saw. It included Frizzell’s you see Frizzell’s Fish Shop over on the right there and the bar we just past and it says look, these you know so-called non-sectarian freedom fighters, look at what they did to us and these are the victims. Now when it first was painted, I can’t remember when, it was a very brave step, because it was difficult for loyalists then to relate so publicly to the notion of victimhood – for two reasons firstly Nationalists were more likely to talk about victimhood and Loyalists didn’t want to sound like Nationalists. Secondly, the whole basis of the UDA and the UVF is to say we will defend you. But to paint a mural about victims of Republican attacks is basically to reply, no, you didn’t defend us.
After leaving his friend, we spoke about the number of former prisoners in Belfast and the impact on their lives of ‘residual criminalisation’.
In that these people who have already done time get penalised again on certain issues, for example, if I’m beaten up outside a pub at night I can get criminal compensation, an ex-prisoner gets beaten up he can’t.
I can adopt, he or she can’t adopt and that was an issue for some women because they maybe spent their best childbearing years in prison and thought adoption was a route to having a family once that was over. Getting visas to go to Australia and especially the United States can be a problem unless you’re in the leadership because they want them in for negotiations and diplomacy and things. So there are a lot of issues that these guys are still fighting, guys and girls are still fighting and they’ve succeeded in relation to a couple of them, for example I think it’s eased a wee bit now as a result of some negotiations that went on, but they couldn’t get insurance.
House insurance, life insurance, all those things you know, so basically what they were doing in a lot of cases was telling lies, that they didn’t have a criminal record which if they’d had to make a claim and that came out later would have been a big problem, because that would have been fraud.
Or they just weren’t insured and so house burns down and that’s it..everything’s gone so there are all sorts of issues facing them.
Now some people have no sympathy whatsoever and they say they should have thought of that before they joined a military organisation but remember I read this statistic, if I remember right, I think a quarter of all IRA prisoners went into prison when they were children as defined by the United Nations. Loyalists tended to be older but Republicans they were young people, very young people and you know whether you blame it on ignorance or idealism they weren’t thinking of what are the repercussions of this for me forty years down the line you know.
We had reached the lower Shankill road
as you see this is not as busy, not as many shops, this has been redeveloped out of existence. This area here is mainly UDA and do you remember I said to you about the demarcation about the two areas? The guy that was in charge here the warlord Johnny Adair an absolute madman, he was called Mad Dog that was his nickname and he orchestrated a confrontation here and it blew up at a point where Johnny led a group up the road there, the bar where we were and Johnny attacked it. A couple of weeks later when things calmed down seven men were dead and about three hundred families had moved. Anybody who was seen as being a UVF supporter from here had to move up the road, anybody seen as a UDA supporter up the road had to move down. So it’s still segregated to this day.
I commented on the internal displacement, the forced movement or uprooting of people out of an area they call home.
Yes and also that kind of internal displacement as well you know, is it displacement or dispersal you know physically moving people out of the areas, uprooting. IDPs, internally displaced people they call them.
Returning to the element of surprise, walking as a method and the stumble stones, Bill reflected on the perceptions of Belfast from the position of an outsider.
Yes, you see the funny thing about it is that a lot of people used to come here and you get totally and utterly confused or totally and utterly mesmerised because of the talk about things like war lords and IDPs and they sort of, you can see it on their face, they’re saying but wait a minute you’re white, you’re European [laughs] you know what are we talking about here and actually before the Balkans blew up because the Balkans muddied the waters in our favour as it were, in that they were white too, if you know what I mean.
I commented that Sarajevo was the first place I saw ‘stumble stones’ the small symbols on the floor where people were shot or killed, the small crosses in the park and green spaces indicating where people had been killed – memorials in the streets and urban spaces to the dead.
We approached the end of the walk,
we’re heading back down, we’re closing the circle here now where I first pointed out to you where the Peace Line is it’s just this street here I was at the other end of this street, see there’s Divis Flats there. So we’ve gone a circle. There used to be other low-rise flats here too called Unity Flats which this is all Unionist area but from these houses over its Nationalist traditionally has been for a hundred and fifty years so this can be a flashpoint too and oh Townsend Street I forgot it existed on this side.
Fig.28. Townsend Street
Townsend Street, yes I forgot it still existed on this side. Apparently over in the Falls Road end my grandfather who was an electrician erected the first traffic lights in Belfast at Townsend Street. In the middle of the night standing on a ladder on the back of a cart that was pulled by a horse with somebody holding the horse still [laughs].
Townsend seemed an appropriate place to end the walk. I thanked Bill for a fabulous walk and the connections between fragments of his own biography and the politics, visual culture and history of the Peace Lines and the conflict in Belfast. What I would take away is the long history that Bill has in Belfast, family history, education and also his long academic career.
He remarked that it was interesting for me that just by chance we bumped into the Chairperson of Sinn Fein and a Loyalist former prisoner, ‘proving that Belfast is just a collection of little villages’ but also that these connections were tied directly to his academic career and community politics.
Well do you remember what I was saying earlier, do you remember I said to you earlier about my envy as it were of some of these people saying ‘oh yes do you remember’ and I don’t have that but I’ve got forty years of doing academic and community politics and that’s how these connections would be coming about.
He explained that a close relative of the Sinn Fein chair had been a PhD student and he had interviewed the walking tour leader, Loyalist ex-prisoner and then got to know him at conferences. ‘So it’s that, that’s where I know the people from, not through my growing up’.
To explore Bill’s work and read his books see the following links: