by Drew Martin
After painting a mural on an outside wall of my house last night, an act which included me toppling off my makeshift scaffolding several times (once with a quart of bright blue paint comically falling down on top of me after I landed on my bum) I washed up and looked for good documentary to watch while I did some ironing.
A movie about murals naturally caught my eye: The Art of Conflict: The Murals of Northern Ireland. It is an excellent documentary, and surprisingly by Vince Vaughn and his sister Valeri Vaughn. I loved this film for its eye-opening look at a conflict I grew up hearing about, which the Vaughns guide us through by taking an upclose look at dozens of murals painted by both protestant unionists/loyalists (to England) and the Irish catholic nationalists/republicans. The endless clashes such as "Bloody Sunday" and "Bloody Friday" embroiled British troops, loyalist paramilitary groups, the Irish nationalist IRA, and many civilians. In total, more than 3,500 people were killed in shootings and bombings.
The republican murals more often than not work as a form of journalism that document their own sufferings through the events (even though they took more lives in Northern Ireland and in England then the combined toll of the British troops and loyalist paramilitary groups), while the loyalists painted their murals as memorials to their own who died as a result of the clashes, or as an aggressive show of force such as the one displayed here that reads, Prepared for Peace, Ready for War.
Whether or not you like the content and style of the artwork, you have to marvel at the ubiquity of the murals, the attention-grabbing colors and themes, and the sheer effort: these are not simply tagged walls with a few cans of spray paint, but well-planned and well-supplied efforts, complete with the proper construction scaffolding I could have used yesterday.
One thing that was really surprising was the detail of internment of the republicans and the arrest and imprisonment of both republicans and loyalists. While the side-by-side communities rarely mixed and kept their ways separate through segregation of schools and all other social functions, those arrested for crimes on both sides were integrated behind bars. This recipe for disaster is actually what led to peace talks.
The imprisonment of IRA-associated republicans led to the "Blanket Protest" and the "Dirty Protest." The Blanket Protest was when the new inmates refused to put on the prison uniform because they claimed they were not criminals but rather political prisoners so they walked around naked, and then started wearing blankets for clothing. This was followed by the Dirty Protest, which is when they smeared the walls of their cells with their own feces. Shown below are two inmates wearing blankets surrounded by such walls.
One of the recurring themes in the loyalist murals is the Red Hand of Ulster, as pictured second from top. It is less-commonly referred to as the Red Hand of O'Neill. More often, it is treated more stylistically as a blood-red, palm-facing-forward open right hand but this example is more telling of the story: back in pagan times the Kingdom of Ulster had no rightful heir so a boat race would determine the next ruler. The first "hand" to touch Ireland would be king. One of the losing contestants decided to cut off his hand and throw it ashore to beat out the leader. It is a myth the loyalist hold dear to in order to stake their claim of the region.
The movie ends on a very interesting note: what to do with the inflammatory images? While they were never meant to be lasting, since even during the conflict they were constantly changing. A final montage shows the before and after shots of the sides of buildings used for the murals with the conflict-based images, painted over with new, benign themes.