‘Troubles tourism’: should Derry be celebrating its political murals? | Cities
One of the first things you see as you enter Bogside is a 20ft mural of a 12-year-old boy, wearing a gas mask and clutching a petrol bomb.
Painted on the side of a social housing property, it’s a stark reminder of the violence that tore Derry apart during the Troubles. One of a series of 12 murals telling the story of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when the British army opened fire at a protest, leading to the deaths of 14 innocent civilians, it depicts the battle of the Bogside, a 1969 riot between mostly Catholic residents and police drawn almost exclusively from Protestant and unionist backgrounds.
This week marks 50 years since the battle, and Tom Kelly, one of the Bogside artists who painted the mural in the early 1990s, says his image shows “a community standing up for basic civil and human rights”. It is not intended to be partisan, he says. “I don’t see it as violent or sinister.”
When it first went up, however, Kelly says it was heavily criticised in both the Times and the Irish Times for glorifying pre-teen violence. The Bogside murals have remained divisive ever since, not just among Protestants but among local Catholics and republicans who want to shake off the legacy of the past.
They have now also become something else: a tourist attraction. A recent NI Tourism report puts political murals as the eighth most visited attraction in the entire country. The neighbouring Museum of Free Derry, which tells the story of Bloody Sunday, attracted 35,000 visitors in 2018. According to the tourist board, all coach tours to the city now stop at the murals.
Earlier this year, the local council doubled down. It took a controversial step: it would encourage this so-called “Troubles tourism” by providing funding to illuminate the murals at night.
The head of culture for the Derry and Strabane Council, Aeidin McCarter, says the illuminations are the first step in a wider project to identify murals and monuments that could contribute to Derry’s tourist potential and encourage a better understanding of the city’s more recent history.
“It’s an issue the tourism industry across Northern Ireland is grappling with: how do we develop this product sensitively and ethically?” McCarter says.
“Many people would love to think the content of the murals is consigned to history, and it’s becoming more and more ancient history, but the reality is some of those issues are still prevalent in society,” she says. “I don’t have the answers to whether [the murals] support or help that move from a conflict society or whether they don’t, but that’s part of the discussion we have around them.”
Some critics say illuminating the murals simply keeps old wounds open. Jeanette Wark, project manager of the Cathedral youth club in the nearby Protestant enclave of Fountain, finds the Bogside murals “offensive”.
“We weren’t amused at [the council] putting lights on them,” she says, and argues that the murals only show one side of the story, omitting how Protestant families had to abandon their homes, and ignoring recent history.
Indeed, the Troubles are far from consigned to the past. The killing in April of the journalist Lyra McKee in the nearby Creggan neighbourhood, where she was observing police raids on republican dissidents, was a reminder that Derry hasn’t completely eradicated violence.
New murals, meanwhile, are popping up all the time, including one on the headquarters of dissident republican group Saoradh, featuring balaclava-clad gunmen and the slogan “unfinished revolution”. After McKee’s murder, friends painted red handprints on the mural in protest against the group’s links to her death. They were swiftly painted over.
There are also new political messages near the Bogside murals proper: recruitment posters for the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which believes a united Ireland can only be achieved through armed action; another poster glorying the Irish Republican Army terrorist group as “the people’s army”; and fresh graffiti expressing disillusion with Sinn Fein, the nationalist political party, for “turning rebellion into money”.
Tourists from around the world visit this area every day and see those murals. That’s precisely why the city wants to get involved, says Odhran Dunne, head of the Visit Derry tourist board. He argues that the local community should take the lead on any Troubles tourism.
“Everyone has a different take on [the Troubles story], but that’s what visitors are looking for, that authentic experience, to feel it, touch it, see it from people who’ve lived it,” he said. “What better way to do that than take a guide who’s locally based taking you into a community who has a story to tell?”
Paul Doherty is one such community tour operator. He prefaces his visit to the Bogside murals with a personal story: his father was among those who died on Bloody Sunday. As such, he says his tour isn’t the “politically correct” version of events, but inflected with his own impassioned views, as well as a counterpoint to Northern Ireland’s frequent media portrayal as a country of “mad people bombing and shooting each other”.
Doherty’s tour ends outside the Bloody Sunday Museum, where a relative of someone killed in the riot is always made available to tell visitors their personal story. The museum received an award for its authenticity in the 2018 NI tourism awards.
John Kelly is one of them: he watched his brother’s body be carried away after he was shot by British soldiers. He argues that the museum adds to the understanding of Bogside. “We find that people from Great Britain haven’t got a clue, they have no idea what happened here,” he said. “A lot of the time we see emotions, tears. It’s incredible.”
Troubles tourism isn’t new in Northern Ireland. It first took off in the early 2000s, says Dominic Bryan, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. “People realised that with peace, tourism was on the agenda,” he says. “The history is literally painted on the wall, in the memorials. The story of republicanism and loyalism as a narrative is being told all around you. It’s very visual: it’s fantastic to do a tour.”
Unlike murals painted by the IRA or paramilitary groups, the Bogside murals are not affiliated to any political group. Nevertheless, they have been politicised by becoming a “focal point for protest”, says Sara McDowell, a lecturer at Ulster University.
“These murals are not passive, they don’t just exist there, they’re active spaces,” she says. “Do they serve to educate people about the past, or do they transfer this sense of trauma and this specific narrative on to new generations?”
McDowell said that research by one her PhD students indicates that “conflict architecture”, such as so-called peace walls or murals, correlates with high levels of depression in surrounding communities. “But there’s very little qualitative research done on what it’s like to live in these communities with these constant reminders of a very traumatic past,” she says.
Community-led political tourism can be problematic because “often you have an individual or a small group of people who talk about the experience of all the community, when communities aren’t monolithic or homogenous”, McDowell says. In divided societies, community tourism can also be used by certain groups to “legitimise [their] narrative and claim victimhood”.
Wark, of the Cathedral youth club, says that instead of Troubles tourism led by individuals, she would like to see shared narratives of the recent history developed, and greater cross-community work.
One organisation doing just that is UV Arts, an award-winning social enterprise that uses street art to engage at-risk young people. The collective paints murals throughout the city in an attempt to find new ways of expressing Northern Irish identity that avoid both sectarian connotations and imagery linked to the Irish and British flags.
One mural in the Fountain is a multi-coloured images of bagpipers, celebrating the community’s links with Scottish culture; in Bogside, a Housing Executive commission carries an environmental message; another tells the story of the Irish famine through abstract imagery that recognises suffering without being explicit. An upcoming mural will commemorate the women who worked in their husband’s jobs during the Troubles.
“We’re quite unique here in this part of the world that people accept large-scale murals,” says Donal O’Doherty, one of the artists. “We’re taking this tradition, saying that we love it, but we’re dragging it into the future.”
Karl Porter, another artist, agrees. “In Northern Ireland there’s a massive trend for figurative stuff, illustrating what happened – it’s very literal,” he says. “Whereas we’re trying to push more of a contemporary twist.”
Porter notes that the whole reason the political murals existed in the first place is that communities felt they didn’t have a platform to express themselves. At the same time, he worries that celebrating the Bogside murals could entrench difference in an already deeply divided society.
“Being surrounded by very harsh political murals the whole time, and particularly a petrol bomber – what’s that going to do the development of a young person? It’s subliminal messaging. Is that OK? Holding a petrol bomb?”