In the Falls, Reading the Walls

Last week we moved to a place near Falls Road, the heart of Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter, where most residents are Catholic and Irish Republican who, as a group, support the use and transmission of the Gaelic language (hence Gaeltacht, which means ‘Gaelic speaking’).

One of the first things I noticed walking in the neighborhood is the number and nature of the murals and signs. They seem to be doing lots of things, rhetorically speaking: establishing the shared identity and politics of the neighborhood; building morale by stressing milestones and successes of the community; inspiring people to emulate specific heroes; rousing empathy for martyrs; connecting the Irish independence movement with those of other peoples around the world; teaching tourists a bit about Republican history; and keeping the struggle alive–every time you walk to the shop, for example, you will be reminded that many families of those who were massacred have not yet received apologies, and that the UK Government continues to run down the clock on the inquiry into the brutal assassination of Human Rights Lawyer Pat Finucane, in spite of the UK Supreme Court deciding there has never been a human-rights-compliant inquiry into his death.

Finucane, who had successfully challenged the British Government in several human rights cases, was murdered at the breakfast table in front of his three children in 1989

As a tourist with a pretty shaky understanding of Irish history, I’ve been studying the murals with great interest. Personally, as they often prompt me to find out more, they seem like a pretty effective device for communicating news and history that has often been ignored or suppressed by other media outlets.

One of the biggest figures in the murals in our part of town feature James Connolly (1868-1916); in fact, there’s a statue of him just a couple of blocks from our place. He was the founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Irish Citizens Army, which defended workers and strikers from the frequent brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. But what he is most remembered for is being effectively the Commander-in-Chief of the Easter Rising , an armed insurrection against British Rule in Ireland that began on 24 April, 1916. That insurrection failed and he was shot by firing squad–he had to be tied to a chair because injuries he’d sustained in the Rising made him too weak to stand. W.B. Yeats mentions him in the poem “Easter 1916” and the Republican folk band The Wolfe Tones have a whole song about him.

Released in 1968, this song reached number 15 in the Irish pop charts

Although the Rising failed in the short term, it became one of the most galvanizing events in Republican history. Outrage about the execution of the rebels, particularly Connolly’s, resulted in greater awareness of their goals throughout Ireland and the world. This resulted in more popular support. It was only five years later, in May 1921, that the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed, providing for the establishment of an Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion and allowing Northern Ireland (formed in 1920) to opt out of the Irish Free State, which it promptly did.

Other heroes of the Easter Rising appear frequently in the Falls. For example, just a couple of blocks from us, is this portrait of Countess Constance Markievicz. The daughter of the Arctic explorer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, she and her sister Eva were both political activists. Constance was hugely inspired by Connolly and even designed the uniforms and composed the anthem for the Irish Citizens Army. She was in the thick of the fighting during the uprising, killing a policeman and wounding a British sniper. At her court martial, she said, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.” She was sentenced to death but because she was a woman (and possibly because she came from the upper classes), the court commuted the sentence to life in prison. On learning this, she said to her captors, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She later became the first woman elected to the United Kingdom House of Commons as a member for Sinn Féin, then the first Irish female cabinet minister.

Getting her eye in in 1915

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 split Republicans into two camps: the pro-treaty Provisional Government and the anti-treaty IRA. The latter group saw the treaty as a betrayal of their goal of a free and united Ireland. That split divided the nation in the Irish Civil War and its effects can be seen even today in Irish politics.

In our neighborhood, it’s pretty clear that the muralists are anti-treaty. There is nary a sketch of Michael Collins, for example, who was Chairman of the Provisional Government until his assassination in 1922. Most of the figures in this mural, for example, were anti-treaty figures.

James Connolly, Éamon de Valera, Liam Lynch, Pádraig Pearse and others I don’t know.

One dominant theme in the murals, and one I didn’t expect, is Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Actually Irishmen fought for both sides in this struggle, and the majority of Irish supported Franco because they perceived the war as a clash between Catholicism and Socialism. The Irish Brigade fought on the Nationalist side for Franco. On the other side, left-leaning Republican Frank Ryan and the Irish Communist Party organized for about 200 Republicans to join the fight against Franco among the International Brigades, army units from all over the world recruited by Communist recruiters.

Mural honoring the XV International Brigade near the Peace Wall

Spain pops up elsewhere, too. At the top of our street is this expression of solidarity with the Catalan Independence Movement:

The Republicans claim common cause with many other groups fighting for human rights against hostile state actors.

Since 1963, the Free Papua movement has waged a low-intensity guerilla war against Indonesian occupiers.
Tamil Eelam is a proposed independent state that Tamils hope to create in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
The murder of George Floyd by the white police officer Derek Chauvin highlighted systemic racism in the United States
Abdullah Öcalan is a political prisoner, a Kurdish leftist political theoretician and one of the founding members of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party
Leila Khaled is a Palestinian refugee and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

And then there are the pictorial tributes and reminders of the Troubles, especially massacres committed by British troops on civilians and also the sacrifice made by the Hunger Strikers who were fighting for the right to be treated as political prisoners.

Kieran Nugent, imprisoned in Crumlin Road Jail aka the ‘Maze’, was the first ‘blanket man’, refusing to wear a prison uniform because he considered himself a political prisoner

The’Usual Suspects’ here are (from left to right) Brian Nelson, Media cover-ups, British Intelligence, Loyalist Death Squads, Government Ministers, British Army, RUC, PSNI, Special Branch.

And, almost an afterthought, is the most pressing issue that we are all facing now (apart from Covid-19, that is):

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