‘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.

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

  1. Excellent post. I had no idea “conflict tourism” was a thing. Quite a pleasure to read for your writing style, and intriguing points to consider – thank you for sharing your thoughts. I like the notion of those being liminal sites, although not necessarily being graves- Americans are big on that too, but as far as conflict goes, most of our sites involve the period of removal of the Indians and the decades just prior. Still, I wonder… a site I would put in this category is a town square in a nearby town where the last public lynching of two black men occurred in 1930. (You might find this interesting. http://wikimarion.org/Memorialization_of_Lynching )
    Many of our battlefield sites are also grave sites, of known and unknown persons. As you insightfully note the nature of the murals of the two groups, I think about my region and the fact that virtually none of the known sites of native villages that were destroyed are marked out in any way, nor areas of massacres unless white soldiers or settlers died. How these sites are commemorated- or not as the case may be- speaks volumes to the underlying power structures involved. Here, even modern incidents of persecution and oppression are marginalized, normalized, and rapidly repressed. There is a concerted effort to suppress knowledge of past events that don’t fit our image of ourselves; just in the last couple of weeks our governor was exposed for censorship: http://www.theindychannel.com/news/local-news/ap-exclusive-emails-show-ex-gov-daniels-sought-to-quash-political-opposition-in-ind-schools.
    It is interesting to me how memorials to both sides exist in N.I., contemporarily. Are they ever destroyed by the opposition, or graffitied?
    BTW, I’m an archaeologist and historical interpreter also, here in Indiana. I meet the type of American you mentioned regularly. We consider them ridiculous too.

    1. Karin, thank you for your beautiful and measured post. I appreciate your responses greatly! Yes, conflict tourism does indeed occur round Europe – people go to Bosnia et al to see the remains of the genocide which occured there, as much as come to this part of the world. It struck me as I travelled there were similarities with various placement of ancient constructions. The idea really came after reading Tatjanna Kytmannow’s wonderful publication on portal tombs, and the reassessment of dates on them, meaning they were contemporary with other forms of megalithic structure in Ireland. Shared land, different traditions… hmmm! Think I know that song from the present day here! The older I get, I suspect we are indeed culturally hotwired to express tribal concerns via constructions, and that the present day is a continuity of the deep, distant past. Only the technology changes, really. Yes, I agree totally that we reinterpret our faulty actions through images which portray what we wish we were. I think much of the mural culture here certainly echoes that. In reply to the rival graffitti, well, if it were possible, they would, I’m quite sure, destroy each others symbolisms.I do think this idea is worth a bandying of ideas about, when one thinks of Parker Pearson’s interpretation of the ritualised landscapes of Stonehenge and Avebury!

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