BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The walls that separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods of this Northern Irish city are officially known as the Peace Walls, not so much because they are peaceful places but because they have historically helped keep the peace in a divided city. Muralists have used these walls as a canvas to express political causes both local and international. 

With a war raging in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, the Irish have largely taken the side of the Palestinians. They have done this both politically and artistically. One such project is called “Painting for Palestine.” It uses images originally made by Palestinian artists that have been recreated here in Belfast by Irish artists and volunteers.

These images occupy a 160-foot section of a Peace Wall known as the International Wall. To create the project, artists spent about seven weeks painting over several older murals that commemorated the 30-year period of Irish history known as The Troubles. The finished “Painting for Palestine” project was unveiled on March 3.

The project includes 12 murals, each with a different scene. In one, a man in a keffiyeh hugs a child in front of destroyed buildings. In another, fireworks light up over a city. A third mural shows two small children, painted in black and white, sitting in shock. 

“Painting for Palestine” was inspired in part by Irish muralist Danny Devenny, who painted the famous Bobby Sands mural on the side of Sinn Fein’s Belfast office. 

For months, even before Oct. 7, Devenny had been seeing artwork online by Middle Eastern artists that supported Palestine. 

The work of these artists, Devenny said, came “from the heart.”

“These images were so hauntingly beautiful,” he said. “They were dealing with issues of death and destruction.”

Devenny began by sharing the Middle Eastern artists’ work on social media with his followers, but then decided he could have an even bigger impact.

“Instead of just sharing their images on Facebook, why don’t we paint their images on our wall?” he said. “Our wall is photographed daily. There’s thousands of people, tourists come here from all over the world.”

Devenny’s hope was that the tourists would take their photos home and share the images of the wall — along with their support for Palestinians — with their friends and family.

‘Giving Them a Space To Say It’: How ‘Painting for Palestine’ Came Together

While Devenny was figuring out how to make his idea a reality, a Palestinian artist reached out to Bill Rolston, a retired sociology professor at Ulster University and a mural expert, with a similar idea.

The artist, Rana Hammoudeh, first saw the Peace Walls when she visited Belfast in August 2023. She was inspired by the International Wall to create a similar wall in Palestine, with artists from all over the world participating in the project. 

“Then Oct. 7 happened,” Rolston said. “Everything went pear-shaped. Her plan was out the window.”

Around December, Devenny decided he wanted to use the artwork of Palestinians specifically, rather than general art that supports Palestine. 

“I thought to myself, a lot of these images we’re looking at on the Internet and Facebook, they’re not all by Palestinian artists,” Devenny said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Palestinian stuff and just show their work?”

The Irish people have felt a connection to Palestinians for decades, “because of a collective memory,” Rolston said. 

“Palestine and Ireland’s stories weave in and out of each other in various ways,” he added. “[There are] so many similarities between settler colonialism in Elizabethan Ireland and in 1940s to 1960s Palestine, including that the proportion of settlers at the time of partition was almost identical in each case.”

A car drives by the “Painting for Palestine” murals on Divis Street in West Belfast. (Photo by Ann W. Schmidt)

The two groups also had similarities in their resistance. Including that the early Provisional IRA trained alongside the PLO in the early 1970s, Rolston said.  

Despite their similarities, Rolston said that doesn’t mean the Irish artists should have been the ones creating their own artwork to support Palestine. 

“People who go through similar political struggles in the world, other people’s struggles resonate with them, but it is only a resonance.” Rolston said. “It’s not the same experience.”

“If we do it, who knows what words we’re putting in people’s mouths, as it were,” Rolston added. “Things that were supremely important to us, may not have been supremely important to them… And also, the real risk is that we’d be patronizing in some way or other, even totally inadvertently.”

In order to get Palestinians’ artwork, Rolston reached back out to Hammoudeh, who was back in Palestine, for help. 

“Rana burst into action and within a couple of days, we had a whole pile of stuff,” Rolston said. 

That was around Christmas 2023, Rolston said. Devenny and other muralists decided to start the actual painting soon after the new year. 

“Within days of us setting up at the corner of the Falls Road, we had dozens of people coming along and volunteering,” Devenny said.

A black cab tour pauses in front of the “Painting for Palestine” murals in the Catholic neighborhood in West Belfast. (Photo by Ann W. Schmidt)

Rolston said the support from the community was “spectacular.” 

“I think maybe the best of all was the buy-in from all sorts of groups in the community,” Rolston said.

A man who runs a printing business made copies of the artwork so the painters could have physical prints for templates. A local business catered food for the unveiling. A community center across the street from the wall gave the painters and volunteers full use of their bathrooms and space to warm up when it was cold outside. And the paint shop up the road sold paint at cost price, Rolston said. 

“And so on and so on,” Rolston said. “The closeness of the community, that meant that’s the way they reacted.”

In the end, Painting for Palestine included 12 murals, painted by three expert muralists and dozens of volunteers, Rolston said. When it was unveiled, there was a celebration with music and interviews with TV stations. 

Rolston said he loved the Painting for Palestine project for two reasons. 

“Firstly, this is not what we think of Palestine,” he said. “This is what Palestinians think of Palestine. So we’re just giving them a space to say it. The second is that there were over 30 people involved at some point or other in painting those 12 murals. Only three of them were muralists.”

None of the other people involved were painters, Rolston said. 

“And yet, with guidance and support and a bit of clean up afterwards, they got it together,” he said. “To me, it’s a wonderful message to say, look, you can do this. Collectively, you can do this. You don’t need to be experts. What you need is to have an expert or two with you and you can do it. So I love that aspect of it.”

‘Are You With Us?’: Political Murals in Belfast 

Despite a light drizzle on a Friday morning in March, tourists still stop by the Bobby Sands mural on Falls Road, right on the corner of Sevastopol Street. 

Sands’ face fills the entire side wall of the building, where Sinn Fein has its offices in Belfast. 

This mural was painted by Devenny in 1998 to memorialize Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who was elected as a member of parliament in 1981, one month before he died while on hunger strike in a British prison. 

Visitors gather in front of the Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road in Belfast. (Photo by Ann W. Schmidt)

Devenny got his start as an artist when he was in prison. He had been arrested for robbing a bank for the IRA in 1973. He started drawing political cartoons that would get smuggled out of the prison to be printed in newspapers. 

Later, other artists started recreating his cartoons and drawings on walls around Belfast. The murals became popular. Devenny realized that his work of creating and disseminating artwork would be much easier if he just painted the images on walls.

“What I realized was murals, you get a couple of tins of paint, you get a gabled wall, you paint the image on the wall,” Devenny said. “All the newspapers and all the camera crews, all the television crews come.”

They either take photographs or videos of the murals — and the message the muralist is trying to send — and that message gets disseminated to people all over the world, Devenny said. 

So Devenny started to paint murals himself. 

Rolston first became interested in political murals in 1981, during the hunger strikes. Before that, Rolston said, there weren’t many murals made by Irish Republicans. The murals were mostly done by Unionists — though he wasn’t aware of them at the time. 

“In the spring of ‘81, some young people just up the road from here began painting murals and the whole thing burgeoned,” Rolston said. “Probably 300 murals in that spring and summer of 1981, where there hadn’t been murals before.”

Rolston started photographing the murals. 

Even after the hunger strikes were over, Republicans continued to paint murals, so Rolston continued to photograph them. Rolston later learned about the Unionist tradition of murals, so he started photographing them, too. 

The earliest murals in Northern Ireland’s history were mostly Protestant, according to the Imperial War Museum. Nationalist, or Republican murals started after the hunger strikes. 

Today, there are an estimated 700 murals in Belfast, according to Extramural Activity, a blog documenting murals and street art in Northern Ireland.

But when it comes to political murals, not just street art, Rolston has a rigid definition. 

“They have to be articulated as political,” Rolston said. “And secondly, it has to be done as part of a movement, even a putative movement. You know, you’re part of a collective or you’re doing it for the collective and not just to say, ‘Hey, look at how good I am.’”

Globally, political murals have one main purpose, according to Rolston.

“Political murals, throughout the world, are about drawing support,” he said. “They’re about saying to an audience passing by, that this is where we stand. Are you with us?”

On a Friday morning, the Painting for Palestine murals were achieving their purpose. 

Across the street, dozens of tourists had stepped out of their black taxis and tour buses. They took photos and chatted with their guides about the paintings. And whenever the tourists went home, their photos and stories went with them — maybe even to be shared with others.