An account of political wall painting in West Belfast.
In most Irish Republican groups, anyone without at least one war story and a scar or two to go with it is usually regarded as some kind of inferior being. The ultimate aspiration was obviously to be beaten or shot at by the cops (or, if you really hit the jackpot, by some nefarious loyalist group), but in reality most injuries were far less dramatic than those boasted of in Belfast’s bars by the “old guard.” To be fair, a large part of this was because the old guard had had more time to embellish their stories—I knew one man who would tell everyone the tale of how he bravely fought off a whole squad of cops even after being shot, when the truth was that he had been hiding in a bush from the cops and accidentally shot himself in the foot while trying to scratch an itch with his Armalite—but the fact was that things were much quieter than in the 1970s and ’80s.
Sean’s uncle was the only currently active member I knew of who could honestly claim to have been shot, but once you heard the full story it became less “wounded in battle” and more “accidentally shot himself in the backside while peeing in an alleyway.” Eoghan set his own hair on fire trying to throw a Molotov cocktail (helpful tip—throw the bottle as if you were pitching a baseball, rather than with a tossing motion). Sean got sideswiped by the wing mirror of a passing bus while picketing in the middle of the Falls Road. Sean’s father tripped and fell in the long grass after a night of drinking (I’m sorry, “strategizing”), and it took ten of us about half an hour to find him because he was too drunk to get up. You couldn’t just go out and pick a fight with the army any more, and this meant that most injuries weren’t so much “patriotic gallantry” as they were “embarrassing screw-up.”
Sadly, mine was no different.
Something you should know about political activism in Northern Ireland is that there is no voice for most of the Republican community. All official news channels are controlled by either Sinn Féin or the British government, and if you’re caught speaking against them, you’re headed for trouble. (After publicly campaigning for Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams to be held responsible for helping conceal the child abuse committed by members of his family, I had my front window shot out and a firework put through my mailbox.) The only way to get messages out to the wider community was to paint them on walls and houses.
Before you condemn us for petty vandalism, I want you to imagine for a moment that Donald Trump were elected president of the United States and immediately assumed total control of all media outlets, so that only his word would stand. What would you do? Would you let his views and statements be the only voice that stood for your country, or would you do whatever you could to make sure your community’s own voice was heard? We had no other choice but to paint on the walls (which is, incidentally, part of a long tradition in Northern Ireland of using street art to argue politics; what contemporary artists do as part of a “guerrilla statement” we had to do out of sheer necessity) so that’s what we did.
Usually, one person would be on lookout because, assuming Sinn Féin’s goons didn’t catch you, the cops might, and they’d beat you just as hard. This meant the only thing standing between the person doing the actual painting (which was almost invariably me, because I could scale walls and structures quickly and easily) and a harsh beating was a halfwit lookout who was usually sulking for being put on such a boring job. On this particular occasion it was an idiot named Shane, a shining example of Irish manhood who would later go on to suffer second-degree burns from putting a lit firecracker down his pants on a dare. In case we had to make a quick escape, we had a list of friendly house in the area who would let us hide out until the cops (or Sinn Féin) went away; all you had to do was knock on the front door or, more commonly, jump the back wall into their yard.
To fully understand what happened next, you need to remember that house numbers are not painted on the back walls of houses, and that if you miscount the houses while sprinting through the back alleys of West Belfast, you can very easily end up in the wrong person’s yard.
Shane, being the idiot that he was, was so busy playing Candy Crush on his cell phone that he somehow failed to notice the approach of not one, not two, but THREE armored police vehicles. This meant that the first I knew of it was when I heard the little weasel shout “oh, FUCK!” and saw him sprint off down the street.
I did the only thing I could do. I ran.
There was a friendly house about three streets away, through a maze of back alleys I knew like the back of my hand but that no outsider would be able to navigate without a map. These alleyways were what made West Belfast such a perfect environment for political activity, in that only those who lived there would have a rat’s chance in hell of making their way through them without getting lost at least once. They were also so narrow that there was no way a police vehicle could follow you through them, and the cops themselves were often reluctant to leave the safety of their armored vehicles to venture into the uncharted depths of a Republican stronghold. West Belfast’s alleyways were often my savior . . . but in this case, they were my downfall. I lost count of the houses and jumped the wall into a yard two doors down from the friendly house.
To give you a fuller picture, this wall was around seven feet tall. There was no way to take a quick peek over the top before jumping, because the only way to get over it was to execute a sort of half-spring off the wall on the opposite side of the alleyway, grab the top of the wall, and pull yourself up and over.
This meant that the first I knew of the greenhouse that took up most of the yard on the other side of said wall was when I crashed straight through the glass roof and landed directly on top of what must have been the only cactus garden in West Belfast.
I don’t know if any of you have ever come afoul of a cactus, but let me tell you, it HURTS. Just getting a couple of spines in you from brushing against one is sore enough, so having my butt and upper legs turned into a cactus pincushion was so excruciating that for a moment I could actually taste my thoughts (most of which were “OH FUCK ME THAT HURTS.”) Sadly, I didn’t have time to sit and stew in my misfortune. I jumped straight back up and charged through the back door of the house and into the kitchen.
Now, a TV show would probably have a big, angry dog waiting in the kitchen for ultimate comedy factor. This kitchen did not have a big, angry dog.
It had three.
I must have crossed that kitchen in maybe one or two seconds at most, leaving a trail of glass shards, cactus spines, and blood. All concern I might have had about being in a stranger’s house, totally uninvited, was forgotten in the sheer strength of my desire to spend as little time with the angry dogs as possible. I’m still not sure what the family that
lived in the house must have thought as I ran through their living room pursued by their dogs, as the only words I ever said to them were “I’ll pay for that” while gesturing vaguely back towards their shattered greenhouse, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I ran out their front door and never looked back.
And no, the police never did catch up with me.