Belfast: A Symbolically Dense Landscape



Join 36.9K other subscribers

Two weeks ago, after we were done with various Cliodynamics activities in Dublin, we went on a field trip to study the post-conflict landscape in Belfast. Our guide on this trip was Kevin Feeney. Exploring Belfast is best done with someone who knows which neighborhoods are safe, and which are not. Even though it has been more than 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement, which put a stop to the civil war between the Protestants and the Catholics, in some places taking pictures can get you in trouble. For many people who lived through the Troubles, a car that slows down for no apparent reasons is associated with the possibility of drive-by shooting.

Northern Ireland is a very strange place. To an outsider (and even an insider) the Catholics and the Protestants are virtually indistinguishable. They look the same, they dress the same, and they speak the same (a particularly unlovely form of English, I may add, although who am I, a non-native speaker of English, to judge).

Let me clarify, before I proceed further, that the essence of ‘ethnicity’ is the division of the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them’; the particular symbolic markers vary depending on the context, and may include phenotype (‘race’), clothing and ornamentation, language and dialect, and religion. In the case of Northern Ireland, the demarcating symbols are religion-based, but that’s just the outward form. To repeat, the content of ethnicity is ‘us versus them.’

Whether you are Catholic or Protestant is not signaled outwardly, although once in a while you see a secondary marker that signals ethnicity unambiguously. For example, are these boys Catholic or Protestant?


Photograph by the author

Submit your answers in the comments, and I will tell you who is right.

Returning to the strangeness of Norther Ireland. Belfast is a crazy patchwork of Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. It is inhabited by two ethnic groups in roughly equal proportions (the latest data indicate that overall in Northern Ireland Catholics are at 48 percent). Yet most Catholics would not dream of entering Protestant areas, and vice versa.



Some of the lines dividing Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are invisible, but mostly they are very clearly demarcated (unlike people themselves). The most obvious are ‘Peace Lines’ – walls separating Protestant and Catholic areas:

Peace Line

The tall fence behind the houses is a Peace Wall, separating this Catholic neighborhood from a Loyalist area on the other side (photograph by the author)

But most dividing lines are not physical; they are symbolic. Two types of symbols are most commonly used: the murals and the flags. Interestingly enough, the Republicans (Catholics) primarily use murals, while the Loyalists really go overboard on flags.

After we arrived in Belfast, we first checked in the hotel (in the neutral area, see the yellow spot in the city center marked as ‘Botanic’ – it’s actually the university quarter and was largely left alone during the civil war). Then we went on foot into the Catholic area along the Falls Road in West Belfast (the dark green sector to the southwest of the city center).

I must admit that I’ve never before seen such a symbol-laden landscape. Practically every building has a mural commemorating a key event in the struggle of the Irish people against the English oppression, or a hero who played an important role in the struggle.

At the entrance to the Catholic sector, you are welcomed by a mural that advertizes. among other things, Irish political tours:


One sign says, “If it’s history you want go on a cemetary tour.” (There is something very Irish in the structure of this sentence; spelling is as in the original.)

Another mural celebrates the West Belfast Taxi association:


During the Troubles many Republican areas were completely cut-off from the state (for example, policemen never entered them, as they were liable to get shot). These Catholic communities were thrown on their own devices, but they did a very good job policing themselves and providing other services. Crime, for example, was practically nonexistent (well, potential thieves knew that they would be kneecapped, which provided a powerful incentive to stay away from crime; but it would be a mistake to explain low crime incidence simply by the fear of punishment).

The Catholic areas also provided a community-based transportation services, which still operate today. They look like traditional Black Taxis you see in London, but operate like buses – following fixed routes and having a fixed fare.


A bit further down Falls Road is a huge memorial to Bobby Sands:


Sands was a member of the Provisional IRA, who died on hunger strike in a British prison.

Nearby is the Garden of Remembrance:


which is dedicated to the memory of the D Company of the 2nd Battalion of IRA:


OK, it’s getting a bit late, so I will have to deal with the Protestant areas in the next blog. But before I end this one, I want to stress just how symbolically dense the Belfast landscape is. I took a ton of pictures, most of which I don’t have space to publish here. But here’s one of a side street off the Falls Road:


There is another mural on the left, which I couldn’t capture, not having a wide enough lens. The house in the background has another memorial to the hunger strikers:


To be continued


A note added 18.VII.2014:

HBD Chick gets the prize!


Notify of
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Chris Kavanagh

Very interesting Peter, especially as I am from Belfast!

I enjoyed reading your impressions though I think you face little danger taking photos these days especially if you are a foreigner. As someone from a Catholic background I’ve actually only ever felt comfortable in strongly loyalist areas when there with visitors/on some sort of tour.

In regards flags & murals, a common response to visitors coming from Southern Ireland asking how you know you are in Northern Ireland if there is no longer an obvious border, was that you can tell as soon as you start seeing Irish/British flags everywhere. Personally, although certainly not neutral something that always struck me about the murals was that the Catholic murals tended to focus on kind of poetic, mythical images of Irish legends and/or focus on social justice/human rights i.e. Bobby Sands quote “… Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” in the mural above, what they didm:t feature very heavily was actual armed militants in balaclavas but in Loyalist areas these kind of images seemed to be quite prominent. It could of course just be my oversensitive threat detection that made such Loyalist imagery particularly salient to me, so I’ll be interested to hear your impressions.

Oh and to make a guess about the two unknown boys… with essentially no justification I guess Protestant. Slightly better than 50% chance 😉

Peter Turchin

In the next post I will talk about the Loyalist areas, and particularly that of Shankill. I did not see many images of armed men, but this could be a new development, as the city is making a concerted effort to replace highly partisan murals with ones stressing reconciliation and peace.

hbd chick

i’d guess the boys are catholic ’cause of the hurley, although i think some protestants in the north do play hurling, too. would’ve had better chances of guessing if you’d shown their faces. (^_^)

Chris Kavanagh

Can’t believe I missed the hurl! I think I thought it was a tennis racket. Incredibly likely to be Catholics.

hbd chick

the other kid’s carrying a hurley, too. i didn’t realize it first time ’round, but if you look at the shadow, you can see it. (^_^)

meant to ask peter what the winning guesser gets — bottle of jameson? (~_^)

Rod Brana

Did Peter ask them? — or is he going by his own assumptions? After all Peter doesn’t want to judge and then finds others’ language “unlovely,” which is another way of creating an “us versus them” — those who speak lovely English and those who speak unlovely English.

(Are the kids wearing blue and white colors because they were colors used by Crusader Catholics or just a coincidence?)

Peter Turchin

There are two extremes to avoid. One is to be offensive, another is to be bland to the point of boring. I hope that I have been able to steer a way between these extreme. You, of course, are free to disagree.


Why necessarily “us versus them”? Every language or form of it has its own “melody”. Some may sound nicer than the others. Italian sounds so much more pleasant to my ears than English:) Or Chinese. No, I am not Italian, and English is not my native language. It doesn’t mean I have anything against English or Chinese-speaking peoples. It’s just the sound that some people may like or dislike, nothing more. Just like music.

Peter Turchin

HBD chick, you got it. And you win the prize for being the first to spot!

hbd chick

yay! (^_^) the drinks are on me. (~_^)


One of them is holding a hurling stick (blue with yellow stripes). It’s similar to the colours of the Saint Brigid’s Gaelic Athletic Club from Malon Road area. St. Brigid’s is Catholic Church, so (most likely) these guys are Catholics.

Chris Kavanagh

Interesting post Peter especially for someone who was born and raised in Belfast. It’s always intriguing to hear an outsider’s perspective on Belfast and, by and large, I agree with your assessment but I don’t think you need to feel insecure about taking photos, especially as a foreigner. In fact, as a person from a Catholic background the only times I’ve felt particularly comfortable in Protestant neighbourhoods is specifically when taking photos with visitors/on tours.

In regards the flags and murals; I’ve often heard people respond to visitors travelling from the Republic of Ireland who inquired about how they would know they were in Northern Ireland (now that there is no obvious border) by saying that as soon as you see lots of Irish/British flags, you can tell you are in Northern Ireland! The striking thing for me about the murals, is that the two communities seem to have employed rather distinct approaches as to what to represent. The Catholic side tends to draw on Irish myth and legend and murals also focus on concepts of social justice i.e. the Bobby Sands example above includes the quote “our revenger will be the laughter of our children” and many murals draw parallels with other international human rights issues i.e. Palestine/Israel, Apartheid in SA. What doesn’t tend to feature prominently however is portrayals of armed militants in balaclavas which do conversely appear to be prevalent on the Protestant side, alongside British imagery. It could just be my threat detection sense that makes such images more salient in Protestant areas but it was also something that other visitors remarked on. I wonder what your own impressions of the differences were?

As for the image, I initially would have guessed Protestant purely due to the slightly higher proportion until I noticed the hurl! Seems very likely that they would be Catholics as I have rarely encountered Protestants who play hurling, though I’m sure some exist!

*Finally my comments regularly don’t seem to show up when I post here. Not sure if they are being caught in a filter or the problem is on my side. Regardless, I would appreciate if you could remove any redundant replies, if they do ever show up!

Peter Turchin

Hi Chris, I had to rescue your comment from the spam – no idea why it ended up there. If this happens in the future, send me an e-mail.

Peter Turchin

That’s right, folks – both of these guys are carrying hurleys:

Hurling is a game that Protestants are highly unlikely to play, as it is a game of ancient Gaelic origin. Additionally (and something you don’t know) the picture was taken in a Catholic neighborhood. So it’s very likely they are Catholic.


So many clues for someone in the know. Hurley. Never heard about this sport before today. ‘blue with yellow stripes… the colours of the Saint Brigid’s Gaelic Athletic Club’

Being clueless, I was the only one who guessed the boys were Protestant. Obviously wrong:)


I wonder what people of Northern Ireland think about the Troubles today. To an outside observer, it looks like all the fighting was for nothing, since borders in Western Europe are rapidly becoming nothing more than administrative unit boundaries and the difference between small countries and semi-autonomous provinces like Catalonia is disappearing.

Peter Turchin

From the Catholic point of view it was not for nothing. 40 years ago they were second class citizens, excluded from many opportunities in N. Ireland. Now there is a system of power sharing. Catholic areas are actually more economically developed. It’s many Loyalists, especially the poorer ones, who are disaffected with the state of things. Most Catholics are not in favor of secession and joining Ireland. I am not excusing the violence, by either side, and I don’t know whether it was “worth it,” but there was real change.


To a different outside observer, it looks like the Good Friday Agreement was the result of Catholics keeping violent pressure for a generation. It’s a shame that it took so long and so many lives to reach a compromise and certain power-sharing. For some reason anywhere in the world nobody wants to share power voluntarily. Westminster was no exception.

This is great that nowadays Northen Ireland is in the news only when Queen Elizabeth pays a visit, or a new season of “Games of Thrones” comes out.


I am certainly not an expert in Irish history, but I was under impression that discrimination was mostly dealt with by the civil rights movement, and the violence was mostly about the political affiliation of the territory. Also, aren’t Catholics getting very close to becoming a majority?

Chris Kavanagh

vdinets > I don’t think its possible to fully disentangle the Troubles and the civil rights movement. Bloody Sunday, which was a major catalyst for the violence in Northern Ireland was a civil rights protest and although officially various divisions were dismantled in the 70s-80s, it is not so easy to remove deep seated division. For instance, while you might not be able to ask people directly in job interviews if they are Protestant/Catholic, you can still easily identify that from their schools and places of residence. Moreover, it wasn’t until the 2000s that reforms were introduced to the police force in order to address the issue that still in 2001, 92% of the officers were from a Protestant background. In short, the dispute wasn’t all simply about the political affiliation of the territory, although that is not such an abstract concept if you lived in a neighbourhood which had British army barracks, armoured jeeps and surveillance towers prominently visible (e.g.


I see… thanks for the explanation!
So, what is it like now? Is there still discrimination? Do Catholics think they have what they were fighting for? Do Protestants worry that they might become an oppressed minority? Is there a general feeling that things will keep improving and the conflict belongs in history books?

Chris Kavanagh

My personal perception would be that generally speaking the Catholic community is more content with the current power sharing arrangement than the Protestant community due to the perception of gain/loss of authority respectively. There definitely are sectarian divisions still but, as Peter says, it is mostly constrained to the working class communities and even there those promoting division are gradually becoming more marginalised i.e. the toning down of murals. The peace has also brought new prosperity in terms of investment, tourism and the slow growth of greater diversity as people are less fearful of settling in NI. And I don’t think either side is keen to fall back to how things were at the height of the troubles. However, there has also recently been a notable trend of overt bigotry being directed towards ethnic and religious minorities. The good news is that there is also overt opposition to such activities and generally such movements are notable for the amount of young people involved. It’s not impossible that things could fall apart but I would definitely say its unlikely. Catholics have also stopped having such large families i.e. my father had 8 siblings but I and many of my cousins only have 1 or 2 siblings, so while demographics will shift I think its likely to stay relatively close to 50/50 for the immediate future.


Thanks again. It’s difficult to get a feeling of what’s really happening once the violence stops and the country disappears from the news.

Chris Kavanagh

No problem. I’ve been living outside NI for quite some time there but still return during holidays. It’s impossible not to notice the change from my childhood and also… a substantial portion of Game of Thrones is filmed there these days!

  1. Home
  2. /
  3. Cliodynamica
  4. /
  5. Regular Posts
  6. /
  7. Belfast: A Symbolically Dense...

© Peter Turchin 2023 All rights reserved

Privacy Policy