Chapter 11 Painting over the Past: Political Palimpsests in Northern Ireland and the Complexities of the ‘Whitewash’ Initiative

In: Topography of Trauma: Fissures, Disruptions and Transfigurations
Mark Callaghan
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Northern Irish murals function as internal dialogues within two disparate communities, whilst also operating as memorials to ‘volunteers’, celebrations of heritage and affirmations of identity. They also serve as territorial markers, often aggressive in their nature, depicting masked gunmen and paramilitary emblems. These political murals are the subject of much debate. Authorities have been trying to replace unwelcome reminders of violence for a number of years. Community groups, residents, artists and local politicians have been involved in consultations and some of the more bellicose images have been replaced with depictions of less contentious history. The replacement of murals – carried out under the ‘Re-imaging Communities’ scheme – has, though, caused a division within Loyalist and Republican communities, including historians who consider the paintings part of their history, their identity, and the collective and individual trauma of the past, whilst some residents, journalists and politicians regard the old wall paintings as intimidating and therefore approve of the new ones. This war over memory offers particularly rich scope for analysis. It raises several questions, including the concern that the ‘Re-imaging Communities’ scheme initiates a ‘whitewash’ with all political murals expunged, and that a process designed to facilitate individual and societal healing has, in some cases, resulted in the opposite. Paying attention to these issues, this chapter focuses on the central questions of what it means to censor and sanitise the history of Northern Ireland’s trauma. Is there a case for maintaining strident images of trauma? Do such changes reflect a transitional society and a post-conflict culture, or do the new murals represent the social truth of irreconcilable differences despite their apparent lack of belligerence? The chapter also pays considerable attention to the history of the Northern Irish political mural and its proneness to change and resistance in the urban landscape, including murals that appear to reflect the political climate, specifically the cease-fire period of 1994 and The Good Friday Agreement accord of 1998.

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