‘Troubles tourism’: should Derry be celebrating its political murals?

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Fifty years since the Battle of the Bogside, some fear the new status of Derrys murals as a tourist attraction will stop the community overcoming the past

One of the first things you see as you enter Bogside is a 20ft mural of a 12-year-old boy, wearing a gas mask and clutching a petrol bomb.

Painted on the side of a social housing property, its a stark reminder of the violence that tore Derry apart during the Troubles. One of a series of 12 murals telling the story of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when the British army opened fire at a protest, shooting and mortally wounding 14 innocent civilians, it depicts the battle of the Bogside, a 1969 riot between mostly Catholic residents and police drawn almost exclusively from Protestant and unionist backgrounds.

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This week marks 50 years since the battle, and Tom Kelly, one of the Bogside artists who painted the mural in the early 1990s, says his image shows a community standing up for basic civil and human rights. It is not intended to be partisan, he says. I dont see it as violent or sinister.

When it first went up, however, Kelly says it was heavily criticised in both the Times and the Irish Times for glorifying pre-teen violence. The Bogside murals have remained divisive ever since, not just among Protestants but among local Catholics and republicans who want to shake off the legacy of the past.

Tourists on a walking tour pass a mural depicting Bloody Sunday. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

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They have now also become something else: a tourist attraction. A recent NI Tourism report puts political murals as the eighth most visited attraction in the entire country. The neighbouring Museum of Free Derry, which tells the story of Bloody Sunday, attracted 35,000 visitors in 2018. According to the tourist board, all coach tours to the city now stop at the murals.

Earlier this year, the local council doubled down. It took a controversial step: it would encourage this so-called Troubles tourism by providing funding to illuminate the murals at night.

The head of culture for the Derry and Strabane Council, Aeidin McCarter, says the illuminations are the first step in a wider project to identify murals and monuments that could contribute to Derrys tourist potential and encourage a better understanding of the citys more recent history.

A recent mural, painted on the headquarters of dissident republican group Saoradh. Photograph: Rachel Hall

Its an issue the tourism industry across Northern Ireland is grappling with: how do we develop this product sensitively and ethically? McCarter says.

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Many people would love to think the content of the murals is consigned to history, and its becoming more and more ancient history, but the reality is some of those issues are still prevalent in society, she says. I dont have the answers to whether [the murals] support or help that move from a conflict society or whether they dont, but thats part of the discussion we have around them.

Some critics say illuminating the murals simply keeps old wounds open. Jeanette Wark, project manager of the Cathedral youth club in the nearby Protestant enclave of Fountain, finds the Bogside murals offensive.

We werent amused at [the council] putting lights on them, she says, and argues that the murals only show one side of the story, omitting how Protestant families had to abandon their homes, and ignoring recent history.

Indeed, the Troubles are far from consigned to the past. The killing in April of the journalist Lyra McKee in the nearby Creggan neighbourhood, where she was observing police raids on republican dissidents, was a reminder that Derry hasnt completely eradicated violence.

New murals, meanwhile, are popping up all the time, including one on the headquarters of dissident republican group Saoradh, featuring balaclava-clad gunmen and the slogan unfinished revolution. After McKees murder, friends painted red handprints on the mural in protest against the groups links to her death. They were swiftly painted over.

Friends of murdered journalist Lyra McKee painting handprints on the mural outside Saoradh headquarters. Photograph: Cate McCurry/PA

There are also new political messages near the Bogside murals proper: recruitment posters for the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which believes a united Ireland can only be achieved through armed action; another poster glorying the Irish Republican Army terrorist group as the peoples army; and fresh graffiti expressing disillusion with Sinn Fein, the nationalist political party, for turning rebellion into money.

Tourists from around the world visit this area every day and see those murals. Thats precisely why the city wants to get involved, says Odhran Dunne, head of the Visit Derry tourist board. He argues that the local community should take the lead on any Troubles tourism.

New political messages and republican recruitment posters alongside the Bogside murals. Photograph: Rachel Hall

Everyone has a different take on [the Troubles story], but thats what visitors are looking for, that authentic experience, to feel it, touch it, see it from people whove lived it, he said. What better way to do that than take a guide whos locally based taking you into a community who has a story to tell?

Paul Doherty is one such community tour operator. He prefaces his visit to the Bogside murals with a personal story: his father was among those who died on Bloody Sunday. As such, he says his tour isnt the politically correct version of events, but inflected with his own impassioned views, as well as a counterpoint to Northern Irelands frequent media portrayal as a country of mad people bombing and shooting each other.

Dohertys tour ends outside the Bloody Sunday Museum, where a relative of someone killed then is always made available to tell visitors their personal story. The museum received an award for its authenticity in the 2018 NI tourism awards.

One of the Bogside murals sharing a space with a modern republican poster. Photograph: Rachel Hall

John Kelly is one of them: he watched his brothers body be carried away after he was shot by British soldiers. He argues that the museum adds to the understanding of Bogside. We find that people from Great Britain havent got a clue, they have no idea what happened here, he said. A lot of the time we see emotions, tears. Its incredible.

Troubles tourism isnt new in Northern Ireland. It first took off in the early 2000s, says Dominic Bryan, a lecturer at Queens University Belfast. People realised that with peace, tourism was on the agenda, he says. The history is literally painted on the wall, in the memorials. The story of republicanism and loyalism as a narrative is being told all around you. Its very visual: its fantastic to do a tour.

Unlike murals painted by the IRA or paramilitary groups, the Bogside murals are not affiliated to any political group. Nevertheless, they have been politicised by becoming a focal point for protest, says Sara McDowell, a lecturer at Ulster University.

These murals are not passive, they dont just exist there, theyre active spaces, she says. Do they serve to educate people about the past, or do they transfer this sense of trauma and this specific narrative on to new generations?

The Bogside murals are not affiliated to any political group, unlike this loyalist mural, set next to a curb painted in the red white and blue of the British flag. Photograph: Rachel Hall

McDowell said that research by one her PhD students indicates that conflict architecture, such as so-called peace walls or murals, correlates with high levels of depression in surrounding communities. But theres very little qualitative research done on what its like to live in these communities with these constant reminders of a very traumatic past, she says.

Community-led political tourism can be problematic because often you have an individual or a small group of people who talk about the experience of all the community, when communities arent monolithic or homogenous, McDowell says. In divided societies, community tourism can also be used by certain groups to legitimise [their] narrative and claim victimhood.

Wark, of the Cathedral youth club, says that instead of Troubles tourism led by individuals, she would like to see shared narratives of the recent history developed, and greater cross-community work.

One organisation doing just that is UV Arts, an award-winning social enterprise that uses street art to engage at-risk young people. The collective paints murals throughout the city in an attempt to find new ways of expressing Northern Irish identity that avoid both sectarian connotations and imagery linked to the Irish and British flags.

Work by UV Arts, an award-winning social enterprise that uses street art to engage at-risk young people. Photograph: Courtesy: UV Arts

One mural in the Fountain is a multi-coloured images of bagpipers, celebrating the communitys links with Scottish culture; in Bogside, a Housing Executive commission carries an environmental message; another tells the story of the Irish famine through abstract imagery that recognises suffering without being explicit. An upcoming mural will commemorate the women who worked in their husbands jobs during the Troubles.

Were quite unique here in this part of the world that people accept large-scale murals, says Donal ODoherty, one of the artists. Were taking this tradition, saying that we love it, but were dragging it into the future.

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