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The concord of the walls: this is how Belfast's history is painted

A walk through the murals of Belfast in the hands of its protagonists

Belfast murals have a lot of history © Javier Arcenillas

How healthy the clash of drinks in the bars. How naive and common that toast with the bar partner, whether or not known. We are used to it here. We tend the glasses to the first one who requests it. More if the spark of alcohol already rides through our body. It would have nothing abnormal, therefore, that Danny Devenny and Mark Ervine they would light a cigarette while stamping their pints in an alley of Belfast, so given also to that ethyl immersion without prejudice. I wouldn't have it if we didn't understand that the capital of Northern Ireland is a divided city, waterlogged its history under a conflict that has faced two communities and in which still segregation predominates in groups of friends, family or simple tavern drinkers.

Devenny and Ervine, however, let their Guinness rest for the minutes recommended for the foam to rise and dialogue like any parishioner in the Duke of York, mythical place of the belfastiana scene. They lavish in jokes, sitting in the air, with a temperature that drives cats away, chaining papers for rolling tobacco. Each one comes from some of the most guerrilla zones of the city: Falls and Newtonyards, to the west and east of this city of 300,000 people. Both are artists. They paint murals in a land where the walls have been the reflection of the troubles, word under which they condense 3,600 deaths, thousands of broken families, half a century of solitary confinement and fences that still mark the anatomy of the city.

From left to right: Marty Lions, Michael Dohert and Danny Deveni © Javier Arcenillas

Its walls have always been the means of expression. Both for Protestants or unionists, defenders of Ulster's membership in the United Kingdom, and for Catholics or nationalists, who advocate for their independence. From haranguing the struggle and claiming a culture of their own to defending causes such as Palestine or Kurdish. The paintings fulfill a sobering function. Marcane the identity, serve as propaganda, adorn each row of houses marked by different colors: the red, white and blue of the English flag or the green, white and orange of the Irish. Talk in Belfast of street art He laughs out loud. It's a modern thing. And they are not to go on design covers.

The circumstances, however, have changed. And the activity of these artists, with them. He Good Friday Agreement, in 1998, marked the beginning of negotiations to end the violence and get the terrorist group IRA (Irish Republican Army) and paramilitary formations will abandon their weapons. Almost two decades later, neighbors enjoy a palpable tranquility. Without attacks and with a new generation grown in peace, shotguns in drawing are meaningless. “The current challenges of Belfast are the same as any other western city: employment opportunities, deterioration of health, lack of education and apathy”, Analyzes Peter McGuire, social worker with more than two decades of experience uniting young and express from the two communities.

“Right now they are a cultural celebration: there are scenes of music, sports, national heroes… I don't think the murals die or change substantially, but the audience is another”, Says Ervine, 46, second pint in hand. Not so long ago, recalls this cub of the unionist stronghold, military presence was the norm. "We printed any issue that was in the forefront of the media or political parties," he says, "and was addressed to the people of the neighborhood, to influence them. Nothing was done out. There was much contempt for the rest. That has become a dialogue and a certain history lesson for youth ”.

The murals have become a dialogue and a certain history lesson for youth © Javier Arcenillas

A few meters from the house where he grew up, a sniper points to those who cross in front of his peephole and some shadows in sculpture remind the builders of the Titanic, built in the early twentieth century thanks to the local quarry. Nothing to do with what is observed in Falls Road, nationalist artery, where a tribute to Fidel Castro, some phrases of Nelson Mandela or concern for him climate change They are selfi background. “We have always pretended to be more subversive and open”, Explains Devenny, architect of several of this Wall of Peace, as he calls himself. “Many times we start them without draft, head first. Y we change them from time to time" Before the pub, this 54-year-old Norwegian was trying to review one of the union building White Union "It's not mandatory, but we have our pride," he said.

"Political movements" is what they used to paint Marty Lions, Michael Doherty or Mark Knowles in its beginnings, in the early eighties. Allusions to the Basque Country, to Mexican Zapatismo... this Catholic clique moves in similar parameters. "We are all in the same fight," they justify. Some symbol of the IRA, some insult to the brits, too. At 56, 50 and 55 they have varied their theme. Not his fight speech: “I was erased many and repainted”, Says Lions, who enlisted in the youth of the Sinn Féin (nationalist political party) and received more than one beating from the police. “They were financed and not us. Now they continue to paint masks and shotguns: that's not right, ”he says. “Its function is to educate, that young people know what happened. We have to tell the story, mark where we came from. And it is significant that don't sign them, because this is not something individual but collective ”, they agree. "We all have a role to play, and we choose this one."

Devenny, architect of several paintings of the 'Wall of Peace' © Javier Arcenillas

The remodeling of the city is part of the process. Its traditional image of danger, shown in film and literature, its climate and the absence of powerful claims discouraged visitors. Since the beginning of the century, efforts to change this reflection have curdled in an attempt to effect Guggenheim with the avant-garde Titanic museum wave pedestrianization of the river Lagan. Bar circuits have also emerged, routes through key points of the troubles and "safaris" through the murals. According to municipal data, throughout 2018 Belfast hosted 9.5 million visitor, with an economic impact of 870 million pounds (about 1,000 million euros) and 10,000 jobs. The students, in addition, have begun to choose the classrooms of Queen's University, which already has almost 25,000 students. And the natural flow of things - with the gentrification of neighborhoods and the homogenization of franchises - has pacified the historic center, a neutral zone for mutual enjoyment.

And the future of these paintings? Answer back Bill Rolston, professor emeritus of sociology at the aforementioned university. “Many leave it. There have been ups and downs and of course they are no longer the same. For some they mean nothing. Others hate them, especially if they live in the area”, Advances in front of - this time - a coffee.

Author of three books that study the evolution of murals for decades, Rolston differentiates between unionists and nationalists in their levels of identity and ability to change: “Catholics adapt better because they have always wanted to communicate more things. At the end of the eighties they decided not to paint weapons, only memorials or historical photos ”, clarifies the specialist, author of several books on the Northern Irish situation. “Loyalists have never boasted of existential views, only political ones. They have not had any maturity: they have focused on themselves. They have no civil concerns and their range is hollow in ideas. In addition, they believe that they control the world and its recreation of episodes that return until World War I detract from them, ”says Ronston. "Whatever happens, I would not like to continue seeing guys pointing at me from the walls".

"For some, these paintings mean nothing. Others hate them" © Javier Arcenillas

It is hard to think about the disappearance of this atavistic feature of Belfast. The murals not only cover recent history but are sold in postcards or t-shirts and brighten up walks through cloned suburbs of exposed brick. Social evolution has been accompanied by a lack among artists. They know each other, but There is no collective to protect them. Lately, official meetings have organized meetings (such as the one that brought Mark and Danny together for the first time ten years ago) and workshops to promote this heritage. "The future is to paint everyone in all areas of the city. Although to establish peace at all, it would be normal to stop making murals, because that would normalize them and keep them there.í ”, weighs the creator and performer Charlotte Bosanquet. “There have been initiatives and you can see that in the walls of the center you start seeing more things artistic" Is people's mentality changing? "Do not. What happens is that history is becoming more rigid. ”

“It has gone from intimidation to effort or pride,” ditch David McDowell, for whom still walking on enemy streets if you are “on the other side” can be a scary thing. "They are an indivisible part of the city," admits this Londonderry artist. At 33, growing up surrounded by these prints, he argues, has marked his way of drawing. “Its enormous scale and vibrant colors have inspired me since I was little. When I didn't understand the messages, it was just an aesthetic issue. Now, with greater knowledge of the political situation, I continue to remain neutral and look at them with a purely artistic perspective, looking only at their contemporaneity. ”

And what greater fun to appreciate the change. That the medians be filled with colors, even if there are 'untouchables', such as that of Bobby Sands at the headquarters of Sinn Féin or the faces of the hunger strikers in the New Lodge Road buildings. Kevin Duffy, veteran resident of this street - short sleeve, skinny at the corner of his mouth - also appreciates the change in his own facade, decorated with a sports mural and European grant stamp. "They paint it every bit," he lets loose with disdain. "I would have preferred a Picasso, but it could not be."

It is hard to think of Belfast without its murals © Javier Arcenillas

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