‘Mixing Memory and Desire in the Dead Landscape’ – conflict tourism and sociopolitical wall murals

I had so many plans this summer. They involved digging in Somerset, drinking considerable amounts of cider, talking Bronze Age all summer long at the tent-door. Instead this summer has been a blend of research where you can grab it and working for the mighty dollar as a tour guide.

Now, this is no bad thing, in my opinion. In fact, it’s proving to be a powerful teaching tool for future presentations and the conferences of the future. You choose the main points that need to be made about areas, you weave them with humour and you keep your pace and timing exactly synchronised to the speed your coach is travelling at. You select the topic, time your tale as you approach the targeted site, and them wham! point it to them dramatically.

The other fact of course is, that even if you do get lucky enough to work and write academic articles on some ground-breaking facet of archaeology, you will have to be able to take all those multisyllabic words so beloved of peer-reviewed pieces, deconstruct them and talk in honest, plain words to the enthusiastic layman, who is no enthusiast of archaeological theory. We do what we do to disseminate information, and what we work on belongs to housewives, pensioners and school kids as much as it ‘belongs’ to us. Tour guiding really refines a body’s capacity to take the contents of JSTOR and make it relevant and accessible to the proverbial ‘man in the street’, and all in under 30 seconds. Effectively, I’ve done this with large chunks of ‘As I Roved Out’ ( O’Byrne, 1970), ‘Carrickfergus’ ( O’Baoill, 2008) and ‘Hidden History below our Feet’ ( O’Baoill, 2011). Remind me to buy Ruari a large cold pint with my hard won gratuities when I see him next….

Travelling on the big open top buses can give you an odd perspective on things pertaining to your own city. I’ll refrain from the worst stories, although I cant resist telling you all about the American tourist who actually stamped her feet that we have too many trees and we should cut them down, as they obscure good photographs. Being a prehistory sort I tend to give my tourists a rollercoaster tour of 4000 years. Sometimes, when needed I’ll drag them back to the Mesolithic and remind ‘em about Mount Sandel ( Bayliss and Woodman, 2009) and Strangford ( Pollard, 2011). But mostly, we drive through paint- bomb splattered road and glass-strewn ghetto street. If you’re reading this you’re a big boy or girl, and have an idea that there’s problems in urban Belfast as I write in 2013.

From the top of the bus I see the cream and grey 18th century buildings, symmetrical and graceful and the florid Victorian brutes of institutions, meant to remind you how very wee you really are. You also see a lot of murals. Actually, you’d be shocked at how many come here for the murals, as if no other country had them. I would never go to any country to look at such things, because frankly I have always viewed conflict tourism as somewhat ghoulish, if I’m being honest, although part of that is changing for me, as I travel around and think a lot.

Our socio-political murals hold little fascination for me. I grew up when many of the illustrated events were happening, they are constant reminders of times I’d rather forget. They mark modern landscapes, ritualised and consecrated by violence, blood and misery, and for many of us here, we knew a fair few of those who now exist as names on plaques or faces on walls. There are places I travel round and still shudder, especially if I need to speak of them in such a cold blooded way when I want to tell the memories, the real people. Tour guides of course do not have opinions or memories. But they do still keep a certain amount of semester-time analysis!

I’ve noticed placement of murals, and their visibility in different territories. Loyalist murals are mostly on gable walls, suddenly visible only as you turn into an area, the mural equivalent of the tap on the shoulder and icy glare that you‘re a stranger on someone‘s strongly guarded territory. I think only the Newtownards Road paramilitary mural really bucks that trend. Republican areas tend to place murals as narrative — long, flat walls are favoured, almost like a processionary route, or camina. A modern Stations of the Cross. Sometimes, when I look at the International Wall on the Falls Road, I think of the stones of Newgrange and Knowth, drawing people around the structure they want all the focus on, probably relating a story well known to those who were Neolithically ‘in the know’.

The sombre little shrines set apart from the murals, the plaques on walls, the ‘peace wall‘ and the no-mans land beside it at Lanark Way surely a liminal space if ever I saw one. Maybe this is just me, but if you’re into those big, dramatic ritual landscapes such as Avebury, or the Boyne, doesn’t this modern Belfast landscape of tribalism, religion, politics and winding memory look all a bit similar to those Neolithic sites?

Are we hotwired to express pain, memory, rage and grief by piles of stones, wood, or paint daubs? If this is the case, then megalithic routes are no more graves than the sad little memorial of the Bayardo on the lower Shankhill, or McGurks in North Queen Street. Only memories are entrapped in such places, and the accuracy of memory attached to any monument becomes diminished as years go by. Of course, today we have written words, hard copy, digital — you name it, we got it. Accuracy of memory may be longer for us, if we as a species don’t kill ourselves off before our technology becomes obsolete. The past had stone, the longest lasting material they could find. And the stones kept the faith through the millennia, just not the words, for words, even spoken, change all the time.

It’s a humbling, and perhaps challenging idea, to think of those much-loved and mystical megaliths as conflict sites, and therefore any student of them as a no-good ghoul of a conflict tourist.. As a species we are red in tooth and claw, and civilisation is seldom more than a thin layer of butter scraped on harsh, coarse rye-bread. We’re constantly polarised between our imaginations and the beauty that can create, and the darker aspects of territorialism.

All of this is, of course, a potential thesis for someone. But not me. I’ll be hoofing around from the Late Bronze Age to Early Medieval, where you know they’re quite into warfare, with no ambiguity! Meantime, be kind to any heritage worker you may encounter — you don’t know what blog they’re writing in their heads as they take their coaches around the countryside, living in the past lane….

O’Baoill, R. 2008. Carrickfergus: The story of the castle and walled town. Belfast: Stationery Office Books.

O’Baoill, R. 2011. Hidden History Beneath our Feet: The archaeological story of Belfast. Belfast: Tandem Design Books.

O’Byrne, C. 1970. As I Roved Out. Belfast: EP Press.

Bayliss, A and Woodman,P. 2009. ‘ A new Bayesian chronology for Mesolithic settlement at Mount Sandel, Northern Ireland’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 75.

Pollard, E. 2011. ‘ The Mesolithic maritime landscape on the north coast of Ireland’. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. 40 (2). 387 — 403.


Sites for Sore Eyes: micro-cults and the potential of continuity of late Prehistoric cosmologies

There is something quite ironic about your first proper blog being about modern archaeology when your main interest is prehistory. Today I revisited a graveyard at the other side of the city. I haven’t been in the graveyard for many, many years, and was really only there to photograph an image of a particular grave I remembered from childhood.

It was the dead of winter, back then… late afternoon, and I was very small, and rather scared of the falling dusk in the land of the dead, despite being with my grandmother. Milltown cemetery is replete with amounts of morbid Gothica which would make Tim Burton or Marilyn Manson weep with joy. Huge mausoleums, more weeping angels than any Joy Division album – a sombre place where Death means business, and you better respect that. A graveyard of martyrs and legends, and the architecture is made to reinforce that fact.

There was a grave, engraved in elegant Irish script. I always felt it looked like Tolkien Elvish. Beneath the great limestone slab was an image of a gracile man, with glasses. One of the eyes was rubbed dark and shiny and hollow. My grandmother rubbed her thumbs over it, and made the sign of the cross on my eyes. Something about this action paralysed me with solemn fear even further, the sort of fear that makes you freeze inside as much as outside. Someone knew mysteries, and magic, had a direct hotline to the Other Side, whose land you stood on, and you were on the helpless receiving end.

So, the rubbing of the eyes ritual didn’t work. Decades have passed and I am still exceptionally short sighted, a fact not helped by my accidental stumbling into academia, and subsequent sojourn here. The amount of late night reading has only increased over the years.

Today, I made my way to Milltown cemetery again to find the rubbing eye gravestone. My grandfather and his first wife are buried in there, somewhere. My great grandmother too, with her people, in a large chained Victorian grave, I’m told. My twin sister, stillborn, was more than likely dumped with little decorum into the bogland cilin at the western edge of the cemetery ( http://www.thewildgeesegenealogy.blogspot.com) . My own personal archaeology is blended in that strange liminal place – and oh boy, if you ever wanted evidence that liminality exists in the 21st century, and that the principle of the ferta never went away, this is your graveyard. The ‘poor land’ reserved for the pauper, the stranger and the stillborn is still marshy despite much draining. The high ground was reserved for the Republican warrior and the Nationalist bard. The rest of the dearly departed are squashed in where they can.

Milltown was designated a formal burial ground in 1869, mostly for the Catholic community, but there are some exceptions. It is a fierce place, conscious of its own place in Republican history. Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty of the 1981 Hunger Strikes all rest here. Joe McKelvey, from the Irish Civil War of the 1920s, and IRA man Tom Williams ; Winifred Carney, the last woman to be removed from Dublin’s GPO in the 1916 rebellion also has a place of honour here. Priests such as Father MacAllister, who accompanied political prisoners to the gallows still presides over his warrior flock. The idea of the Late Iron Age/Early Christian ferta, the burial land of the ancestors as the only place where a body can rest among their own, is strong here. Ancient ideologies (and oh, I do mean ancient)… they never went away , you know, to paraphrase Mr Adams.

The major graves are for the Republican ‘warrior’ classes, followed by the bards of the 19th and 20th centuries. Cathal O’Byrne of ‘As I Roved Out’ fame is buried in a modest grave here. The death mask of the handsome’ Weaver Poet’ Francis Davis, looks out from a La Tene styled tower of sandstone with blind eyes. Davis was a Presbyterian, scion of United Irishman supporters. Finding himself in penury after the death of his parents, he worked as a weaver to make money to attend the incarnation of Queens University, the Queens College, during the Early Victorian period, and dazzled at all he did. He later established a magazine, the first historically aware publication of its kind, called ‘The Belfastman’s Journal’ ( Reilly, 2000, 127).

As I sat by Cathal O’ Byrne’s graveside, talking with the incredibly knowledgeable cemetery keeper, I pondered many things. The morbidly over-the-top graves of crucifixion scenes, placed there in 1934, the height of the Hungry Thirties recession, were plain evidence that visible manifestations of memory are for the quick, not the dead. Sweeping statements that all prehistoric megaliths are linked to solar or lunar events may be partially right in the same way Christian graves align to the East/West axis for Resurrection Day – but what if human ostentation is the main reason? Encapsulations of territory, ideologies and culture, the one-stop shop to scream out ‘ Credo’ for a whole tribe? And if you don’t holla’ back ” preach, brutha!!” and understand the symbols, then keep moving – you’re not part of the gang.

The priest with the rubbed eye is one Fr Donal O’Toole. I can find no details of him as yet, or why the ritual of eye rubbing sprung up at his graveside. I’m going to presume the little micro-cult comes from rural folks, working in the hellish mills who remembered ancient traditions by wells and stones, all conveniently sanctified for saints, of course – Holy Mother Ireland and all that, but really were manifestations of elemental worship so hated by Patrick in his conversion trips through Ireland ( Bieler, 1979). You can take the people out of the Late Bronze Age ( or perhaps even earlier?) but you can’t take the Bronze Age out of them….

As a small child, I remembered Milltown as a place of terror, where you weren’t just up against the disapproving Warrior Dead, but magic and ritual as well. When you’re face to face with The Other Side, you don’t say a lot. Rather reverential circumstances from which ritual springs, I think. had believed the grave of O’Toole to be in a different place, a different shape. As an adult, in sunshine, devoid of fear, my perspective was very different from the myopic, terrified child who was confronted by taboos and The Great Unknowns, with granny as High Priestess of mysteries.

I think there’s an important lesson here about utilising folklore, anecdotes, and ( whisper it) phenomenology here. When we are the powerless ones, reliant on others interpreting ritual for us, we see landscapes in a very different manner. What is it Shakespeare said? ‘ .. in imagining some fear, how easy is a bush mistook a bear’? Everything contains a more potent meaning, reinforcing our own mortality and weakness and lack of the smarts. Even such a landscape on a sunny day moves through us, in our minds and hearts.

I allowed myself to stand and gaze down on the low land of the cillin, wondering what it would have been like to have a sister. Would she have accompanied me into archaeology? Would I have been a hare-brained Aunt Mame sort, dragging my nieces and nephews off on research fun while my sister face palmed ? Sober thoughts for a hot day.

Even the fact that the Milltown ‘poor ground’ is on swampy land, I think is important here. Ancient traditional ferta often became unsanctioned places on the boundary of heaven and limbo for the socially unacceptable dead, such as strangers and unbaptised children ( O’Connor, 2005). This has been shown in several locations, such as the secular cemetery/ cillin of Faughart Lower, in Louth ( Potterton and Corlett, 2010).

I may some time think about Victorian Irish graveyards as reinterpreted ferta. I may consider some poking at pre-1869 maps of the Milltown region to see if there were any traces of early structures such as raths, standing stones et al. If I get time, I may have a look at a few other Victorian graveyards as comparisons – I know Knock in Belfast once contained  prehistoric earthworks of some form. The choice for these sites in the 19th century may not be just matters of land and convenience. However, the choice to rejig the ideologies or cosmologies of an ancient pre-Christian past is probably no further than a stone, a rubbed finger and a whole lot of superstition. Such things are so far ingrained into this island consciousness, I don’t think we can separate them from the 21st century.

We are what we are.

And frankly? I love it.




Bieler, L. 1979. The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

O’Connor, A. 2005. The Blessed and the Damned: Sinful Women and Unbaptised Children in Irish Folklore. Berne: Lange Publishing

Potterton, M and Corlett, C ( eds). 2010. Death and Burial in Early Medieval Ireland in the light of recent archaeological excavations. Bray: Wordwell Press.

Reilly, C. 2000. Mid Victorian Poetry 1860 – 1879. New York: Mansell Publishing