Digitizing the Murals: Benefits and Challenges
A. Searchable Database and its Interpretative Possibilities
I am fortunate to have had the support necessary to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital technology in order to create the Murals of Northern Ireland archive. Previously, I was able to present a limited sample of the materials I have gathered over some thirty years or so in class, or to small meetings, or through exhibitions—and to give some idea of the limitations, I doubt that I have ever been able to show more than forty images, from a stock of some twelve thousand, on any given occasion. Now, however, anyone with online access can view the whole collection—or, at least, the images that have been entered thus far—with their accompanying description. Each image can be enlarged and examined in detail; and each image can be downloaded and used freely for non-commercial purposes.
Most importantly, for the purposes of interpretation, the archive can be searched in any number of ways—by place, event, year, person, political organization, and subject, to name but a few. Type “Shankill” into the search facility, for example, and the program will select forty-seven results ranging from 1984 to 2010 [images 48, 49]. “Hunger Strike” will produce fifty-nine results, from 1980—the year of the first Hunger Strikes—to 2010 [images 50, 51]; and “children” will give sixty, from 1980 to 2010 [images 52, 53]. “1916” will produce thirty-nine results, from 1981 to 2010, including republican murals referencing Easter 1916 [image 54] and loyalist images that cite the Battle of the Somme [image 55]; and “Bobby Sands” will bring up sixty-seven, from 1981 to 2009 [images 56, 57]. “UVF” will render one-hundred-and-one results, ranging from 1980 to 2010 [images 58, 59], while “Cumann na Mban,” the Women’s wing of the IRA, will summon sixteen, from 1983 to 2010 [images 60, 61]. But there are other interpretative possibilities, such as the analysis of the significance of specific locations—there are a number of mural sites, for example, that have been used consistently since 1979—or the changing political allegiances of particular areas, down to the level of streets, or even street-corners. Cultural developments, such as the use of Gaelic in West Belfast, can be tracked, as can the evolution of political rhetoric—the walls, in fact, are invaluable records in this respect. And, given the willingness of muralists to be identified, it is now possible to analyze aspects of their work: early and late styles in the case of individual muralists, for example, or the ways in which they influence each other, or even the nature of their collaborative efforts. In addition, the collection is interactive, and contributions and queries are welcomed and addressed. This means that the detailed historical commentary on the murals is open to revision, and on a number of occasions it has been changed in the light of information supplied by correspondents.
The benefit of digitizing the murals, then, is clear, and in many ways the project delivers the same possibilities as other similar undertakings in the digital humanities: it provides access to materials previously hidden or, at least, obscure; it allows researchers of various types (from the professional to the simply interested) to work on the materials freely; it offers different ways of approaching the materials; and it is open to comment and revision. Such opportunities are extremely advantageous, for all sorts of cultural, historical, and, not least, political reasons. Yet my work on the Murals of Northern Ireland archive has also raised a central issue that applies not simply to this collection but to other work in the digital humanities more generally and in Irish Studies in particular. I will spend the rest of this paper discussing that question by looking at a few examples of murals and the difficulties they provoke.
B. Controlled Vocabularies
During the early stages of compiling the archive, I was introduced to the idea of a “controlled vocabulary.” This rather ominous-sounding feature was in essence a sort of glossary of cultural and political terms, and the guidelines stipulated that the glosses needed to be drawn from the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and the Library of Congress Name Authority File lists. As anyone familiar with these sources will know, they are long, awkward, and often inaccurate (by dint of being out of date, lacking a reference, or choosing one term and excluding a plausible alternative). A simple and classic example is the Library of Congress Name Authority File use of “Londonderry” rather than “Derry” to refer to the city now sometimes known as “Stroke City” (“Derry-Stroke-Londonderry” or “Derry/Londonderry”). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this particular naming issue was recorded in the murals themselves [image 62]. So the question is, what is the proper term to use in the “subject” or “description” fields of the archive? Inevitably the answer to that question requires an act of political interpretation, and my response has varied from case to case. In many instances, I followed the general practice (even amongst unionists) of referring to the city as “Derry,” but there are examples where the reference needed to be “Londonderry”—as, for example, in a loyalist mural that features the term [image 63]. My aim in this case has not been to achieve “neutrality”—not least because, as David Beresford once commented, “there is no neutrality in Northern Ireland” —but to attempt to use language in ways that are historically sensitive. Ultimately, there is no way around the fundamental problem, since description and categorization are complex political processes that involve interpretation and evaluation. This is as true of the LCSH list as it is of my own work; it is for that very reason the LCSH often had to be ignored, expanded upon, or otherwise amended. And the key in doing that is, as Allegra Gonzalez has put it, to “[t]hink globally, act locally and assign subject terms accordingly.”
There are instances, however, when issues of terminology are acutely difficult. Take, for example, terms that refer to intentional killing. What is the right term to use? “Killed”? “Assassinated”? “Executed”? “Murdered”? Evidently the choice has to be determined by the nature of the event to which the mural refers, but this is often a matter of contention. What of a mural that figures the death, at the hands of State agents, of a paramilitary volunteer engaged in active service? [image 64] Or, to take another example, was Bobby Sands “murdered” by his fellow Members of Parliament? [image 65] What term should be used in the description of a mural that refers to the killing of a paramilitary by a member of a rival paramilitary group—say a UDA member killed by the INLA? [image 66]  Would it be the same term if the paramilitaries involved were on the same side—say a UDA member killed by the UVF? [image 67] Is “murder” the right word to use of politicians killed in the conflict? [image 68]. In each of these cases, an evaluation is inevitably made by way of lexical choice, and the same issues arise with regard to the attribution of political affiliation. In the post-war (as opposed to “post-conflict”) period—roughly from the Good Friday Agreement of 1998—this has become another complicated question. Evidently there are proper and necessary distinctions between terms such as “loyalist,” “unionist,” and “Protestant,” just as there are between “republican,” “nationalist,” and “Catholic.” But what of cases where the murals themselves, either in terms of content, or physical location, resist these distinctions? Take, for instance, a mural on Berwick Road in Ardoyne dedicated to the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje [image 69]. Is this Catholic in affiliation? In terms of content it evidently is. But can it also be categorized as “nationalist”? Given its location, in the heart of republican Ardoyne, it could be categorized in this way, though “republican” seems inappropriate. Would it be better described as “non-aligned”? Often, in cases such as this, I have chosen that descriptor, but it doesn’t feel quite right to me: the mural is “non-aligned” in relation to a specific political goal, but the Catholic Church itself is hardly “non-aligned” in the conflict in Northern Ireland in any number of ways.
Another example of this particular challenge is a mural on the Lower Shankill dedicated to Martin Luther [image 70]. Is this a “Protestant” mural? Or “unionist”? Again, the location is important—this appears on North Boundary Street, a bastion of loyalist paramilitarism. What is the proper term to refer to a mural that features an iconic figure of Protestantism, which sits in a loyalist area, and which could not have been painted without the permission of local paramilitaries? “Protestant-loyalist”? Evidently such terminological issues are intricate, and they reveal the ways in which the language available to us is always politically inflected. This may not be news to those versed in historical semiotics, but that insight hardly helps with the problem of trying to convey the complexity of the murals using terms that tend to be simplistically categorical, a problem with which digital humanities must now grapple.
This leads to a final difficulty, and again, a mural helps to illustrate the point. In 2009 a mural appeared on the “International Wall,” a large site for murals that stands at the junction of Divis Street and Northumberland Street in republican West Belfast and can thus be seen by anyone heading west up the Falls, southeast towards the City Centre, or north towards the Shankill [image 71]. At the forefront of the mural is a portrait of Kieran Nugent, the IRA prisoner who began the “blanket protest” in 1976; to the top right are two images of Brendan “The Dark” Hughes, Officer Commanding (OC) of the IRA in the Maze Prison and leader of the first Hunger Strike in 1980. In the background are representations of a number of posters related to the prison protest produced by Sinn Féin and associated prisoner support groups such as the Relatives Action Committee. At first sight, this seems like a standard republican mural commemorating two iconic figures of the republican movement: Nugent died in 2000, Hughes in 2008. Yet there is more to it than this. Though Nugent and Hughes hailed from the Lower Falls area—more or less where the mural stands—this does not explain why they appear together. Rather, their juxtaposition can perhaps best be explained as an implicit critique of Sinn Féin, and indeed the republican movement more generally. Nugent, a heroic figure within republicanism—whose political and indeed electoral success was predicated on the prison struggle—died a lonely, alcoholic death, the nature of which was contentious within republican circles (the claim being that he had been neglected by his community). One of the severest critics of the republican leadership in this regard, and others, was none other than Brendan Hughes, OC of the Belfast Brigade (prior to his imprisonment) and formerly one of the closest allies of Gerry Adams. Hughes, in interview with Suzanne Breen in The Sunday Tribune in 2006, voiced his concern about Nugent: “They called him a ‘river rat’ because he spent his last days drinking by the river in Poleglass. Why didn’t somebody in the movement not see he’d problems and help him? He was the bravest of the brave. The screws ordered him to wear the prison uniform and he replied, ‘You'll have to nail it to my back.’” But Hughes reserved his harshest criticism not so much for the political strategy of Sinn Féin—like many others tarred with the loaded term “dissident,” he embraced the peace but rejected the “peace process”—but for the alleged corruption within republicanism—censorship and profiteering in particular. “It’s hard to see ex-prisoners destitute when the leadership are so wealthy and have holiday homes,” he told Breen.  Such strictures were deeply controversial, not least because of the status Hughes held amongst republican volunteers and activists. And the consequences continued after Hughes’s death, when the request by Adams to give the funeral oration was bitterly opposed by many of Hughes’s closest friends and political allies. Now, given these facts, the question is this: how much of this information should be included within the description of the Nugent-Hughes mural and in what terms? “Republican” is clearly the term required for the subject field. But is it adequate simply to note that the mural contains images of two leading republicans and assorted posters from the prison campaign? Or would this be misleading? Likewise, should the description include historical and contextual information that explains the juxtaposition of the two images? And should it refer to the performative political effect of the mural? Or would this be interpretation rather than description?
These are not idle questions since they indicate the political complexity of work that attempts to archive the recent war in Northern Ireland conflict. And such difficulties are highlighted by the recent controversy over the Boston College archive of interviews with republican and loyalist paramilitaries, with which students in Irish Studies will be familiar. The political repercussions of claims made by Hughes and Dolours Price, both participants in the Boston College archive, about the alleged involvement of Gerry Adams in the abduction and murder of Jean McConville led to the arrest of the leader of Sinn Féin in 2014. But they also brought about the effective collapse of the archive itself, as well as provoking threats against the compilers of and participants in the research that underpinned the collection. Again, the walls tell the story: after Adams’ arrest, a new mural appeared on the Falls Road [image 72], the slogan “Boston College Touts” [image 73] appeared all over West Belfast, and a mural commemorating Hughes [image 74] was defaced (though later repaired by his supporters).