Among the first things you’ll notice as you walk around the working-class neighborhoods of Belfast, Northern Ireland, are the murals. In the areas around Shankill Road or Falls Road, buildings are coated with vibrant and violent depictions of paramilitary men clad in black, clutching RPGs or assault rifles, their faces obscured by balaclavas. Today, they seem out of place with their surroundings. It’s not unusual to see small children playing in front of towering pictures of men toting submachine guns.
These works of propaganda are remnants of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the 30-year conflict between Catholic republicans (a minority that wanted to see Northern Ireland unified with the Republic of Ireland), and Protestant unionists (a majority that wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom). Concentrated in sectarian neighborhoods, these works of art make it clear where Northern Ireland’s political and religious boundaries lie.
The pieces are disquieting, to say the least. A mural in a republican neighborhood may honor people who were killed, while a mural in a unionist neighborhood one mile away may honor the people who did the killing. A handful of works openly refer to “the enemy”—people who may live just blocks away. Contrasted with their surroundings, the murals evoke an awkward dissonance: Today, downtown Belfast is vibrant, bustling, and safe, while the murals harken back to a time when the city was anything but.
Now, it’s a popular tourist activity to hop inside a black cab and tour Belfast’s paramilitary murals. Here are a few highlights on the trip, along with a timeline of the terrible events that brought them to life.