Monday, February 17, 2014

What does graffiti tell you about a place and a time? (Belfast, Derry City, Armagh City, 1970s)

While collecting images for my Old Ireland Pictures Twitter account I came across these images of graffiti in various cities in Northern Ireland. They all date from the 1970s, two from predominantly Protestant, Unionist areas and two from predominantly Catholic, Republican districts*. Graffiti has probably existed since people have been able to write and there are numerous examples of ancient graffiti to be found in Egypt, Rome, Greece, and the like. One of the slightly dubious delights at sites such as New Grange is seeing 19th century and older graffiti inside it. Like the marginalia found in illuminated manuscripts graffiti can lend the historian a different, less formal insight into a time and a place than the official narrative.

 Geoffrey Street, near Crumlin Road, Belfast, 1973

The examples of graffiti I've included can I suppose be seen as an ancestor of sorts to the political murals that I've written about before. The first image above, which shows graffiti that espouses a quite clearly Unionist perspective, includes "Keep Ulster Protestant", "God Bless Paisley", "God Save The Queen", and "O'Neill The Lundy". While the first three are probably self explanatory, the Paisley being of course Ian Paisley, the Queen being Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the last one might need a bit of explanation. The O'Neill referred to was Captain Terrence O'Neill, who was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland between 1963 and 1969. O'Neill felt it expedient to achieve a rapprochement with, and bring in reforms to improve the lot of, Northern Irish Catholics. In the eyes of many Northern Irish Protestants this was tantamount to treason. A Lundy is any traitor to the Protestant Unionist cause. The term, especially well known in Derry City and environs, refers to Robert Lundy, Governor of Derry during the Siege Of Derry. Due to either treachery or perhaps rank incompetence, Lundy seemed to do all in his power to let King James II's forces take the city. To this day he is burned in effigy.

 The Bogside, Derry City, 1972.

The graffiti in this next image comprises the slogan "Easter 1916-72", an Irish tricolour, and "Provisionals For Freedom". The first slogan obviously commemorates the 1916 Rising although I'm not sure why 72 was included. The latter, sounding almost like an advertising slogan, espouses support for the Provisional IRA. In the background is the Walker Monument which was blown up by the aforementioned Provisional IRA in 1973. All that remains of it in public view is the plinth. 

 Belfast, 1970s, I am not sure of the locale.

The presence of a Vanguard Unionist graffito indicates this photo was probably taken in 1972 or shortly thereafter.  The three most prominent slogans are "Paisley For P.M.", "UVF", and "We Are The People". The first slogan is somewhat prescient with Ian Paisley having served as First Minister of Northern Ireland over 30 years later. The second stands for the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant Loyalist paramilitary group. The last one had me perplexed for a minute as I had only ever heard "We Are The People" in the song Free The People by the Dubliners, an anti-internment ballad. However, it seems in this context it is a popular Glasgow Rangers slogan, a team associated with Northern Irish Protestant culture.

Armagh City, again I don't know what street/area this is, early 1970s. 

This last example of graffiti in Northern Ireland features a grocer's apostrophe. First there's "Pig's Out", an anti-police sentiment voiced by many people in many different places over the years, but clearly understandable in the context of Catholic Republican animosity as regards the then RUC. The second part is calling for a "Worker's Republic" which is a term most associated with James Connolly. Many Irish Republican groups called for a 32-county Workers' Republic to be formed, that is not only an independent Ireland, free of British rule, but also organised on socialist principles. 

All of the above examples display touchstones of the sociopolitical culture of their respective communities. One thing they all have in common is they're very basic. That is, white paint and a simple font is used in each example. A simple Irish Tricolour in the second example is the only graphic to be seen. In this sense these examples of graffiti diverge greatly from later luridly coloured political murals and indeed modern day graffiti which is often colourful and sophisticated in a visual sense.

*I am fully aware that there are Republicans who aren't Catholic and that there are Unionists who aren't Protestant but for the sake of brevity I have used Catholic Republican and Protestant Unionist.